In some ways, this is a familiar spot for Utah’s football program. The Utes have been in similar situations before.

Utah fell 29-26 to Florida in dramatic fashion last Saturday at The Swamp.

For the Utes, expectations are lofty — they are picked to win the Pac-12 championship and have been projected as a College Football Playoff contender — but it has opened the 2022 season with an 0-1 record.

“I really like this team. This team has a bunch of wins in it this year. We’ll see how far we can take it.” — Kyle Whittingham

When the rankings came out Tuesday, Utah slipped six spots from No. 7 to No. 13. So the Utes remain a top-15 team.

The good news for Utah is, in recent years, it has shown resilience after difficult September losses.

Certainly, Saturday’s defeat doesn’t impact the Utes’ quest for another Pac-12 championship. There’s still plenty to play for.

They know that shrugging off losses and making incremental progress every week results in big rewards.

In 2019, Utah opened 3-0 before dropping a 30-23 setback at USC. From there, Utah won eight consecutive games en route to capturing the Pac-12 South title. The Utes climbed as high as No. 5 in the national rankings.

A year ago, the Utes dropped back-to-back games at BYU and San Diego State before winning nine of their next 10 games, including their first Pac-12 championship, a Rose Bowl berth and a No. 11 ranking.

So what’s next for this battle-tested Utah team? What kind of script will the Utes write from here? What is the key for them to make another run in 2022?

“It’s looking at what we did wrong and correcting mistakes. Continuing to work hard,” coach Kyle Whittingham said. “Never change your work habits based on the opponent. You’ve got to prepare the right way. Everybody’s got to be better. I really like this team. This team has a bunch of wins in it this year. We’ll see how far we can take it. One game early in the season is not going to derail that. As long as the leadership stays strong and everyone stays focused — which I don’t see any reason why that wouldn’t happen.”

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Cornerback Clark Phillips III remains unwaveringly optimistic.

“All my faith lies with this team. I’ll tell you. We’ve been through everything,” he said. “There was no doubt in my mind when we were down by a little bit or a lot last season or the first week of this season. I have no doubt. We feel like we can come back from anything because we’ve been through everything.”

One of the reasons why Utah has been able to bounce back is because it’s been able to clean up the mistakes and apply the lessons that they’ve learned from setbacks.

Saturday (11:30 a.m., MDT, Pac-12 Network), the Utes host FCS foe Southern Utah from the WAC. They’re not looking ahead to November or December or January. 

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“It’s just knowing the mistakes we made, hoping they don’t happen again,” said running back Micah Bernard. “It’s going through practice and getting it done.”

Bernard added that leadership from the players is crucial, especially at a time like this. 

“Right now, we’ve got a lot of guys talking. We know exactly what we did wrong. It’s up to us. We have to take control,” he said. “Coach Whitt said it earlier in our meeting — it’s a player-led team. We have to let the players lead and we have to get it done.”

Wide receiver Devaughn Vele emphasized not looking back too much, either. 

“It’s that 1-0 mentality. Trying not to dwell too much. We learned from what we experienced at The Swamp,” he said. “But we don’t want to dwell on it too much to where it affects us in the next game. We understand that. We’re just putting the focus onto that, emphasizing it in practice and making sure it shows up on Saturday against Southern Utah.”

Utah chose to begin the season with an enormous challenge rather than open with, say, an FCS opponent.

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It’s a decision that Whittingham doesn’t regret, despite the loss to Florida, an SEC power. It was a game played in a hostile environment that featured a record crowd of more than 90,000. 

Whittingham learned a lot about his team Saturday.

“You can win a game against a lesser opponent but a bunch of things are masked because you’re so superior physically and athletically,” he said. “It hides itself. A game like this will expose anything that you have to work on and where your deficiencies are. In that regard, I don’t regret playing these guys. It’s a great opportunity for our university and our team … We were excited to play these guys.”

The way Whittingham sees it, his team was close to pulling off a huge win in one of the biggest openers in program history. 

But that’s in the past.

“We put it behind us. We had our chances to win. We make one play on defense at the end and one more play on offense and we win the game. We didn’t get it done. They did,” Whittingham said. “They made the plays they needed to make. They’re a good football team. I expect them to win a bunch of games. Their quarterback (Anthony Richardson) is exceptional.”

No, Whittingham doesn’t believe in moral victories. But he likes his team’s competitiveness. 

“Just proud of the effort. They played hard from start to finish for the full 60,” he said. “We just point out why we lost. It wasn’t for lack of effort or competitiveness or heart or any of that stuff. It was things that we can control and get better at. That’s what you point out.”

From experience, Whittingham knows what his team needs to do to reach its potential, whatever that might be. 

“So we move on. We’ve got to be ready to play this week,” he said. “We have to worry about ourselves. Who we play this week, at least today, is inconsequential until we get our own problems solved.”

That approach has served him well for many years. 

History has shown for Utah that a loss in September can be turned into a positive thing in the long run. 

“A lot of football left as we all know. I like this team a lot,” Whittingham said. “I think we’ll win a bunch of games this year ... They’re all big. Every game is big. I don’t buy into this game is any more important than another game.”

Utes on the air

Southern Utah (1-0) at No. 7 Utah (0-1)

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Saturday, 11:30 a.m. MDT

Rice-Eccles Stadium

TV: Pac-12 Network

Radio: ESPN 700

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