Editor’s note: Last in a series previewing each team in the Pac-12.

Even amid the disappointment of losing a second straight Rose Bowl last January, ultra-competitive Utah coach Kyle Whittingham remained upbeat and resolved. 

“It’s another step in the right direction in the evolution of our program. We’re a program that’s still hopefully on the rise and trying to make our mark in college football.” — Utah coach Kyle Whittingham

Following that 35-21 setback to Penn State, Whittingham, who’s entering his 19th season at the helm and is the second-longest tenured coach in the country, acknowledged what his team had accomplished while shifting his focus ahead. 

“It’s another step in the right direction in the evolution of our program. We’re a program that’s still hopefully on the rise and trying to make our mark in college football,” said Whittingham. “We had the breakthrough last year with our first Pac-12 championship. We were preaching to the team all year long this offseason and all through fall camp how it is harder to stay on top than it is to get to the top.

“The challenge was trying to repeat. Through some unique circumstances, we were able to do that and take another step forward. We’ve just got to keep evolving and keep progressing and stay on this trajectory.”

Utah finished No. 10 in the final Associated Press poll. It marks the program’s highest final ranking since finishing No. 2 following the 2008 season, when the Utes went undefeated and won the Sugar Bowl.

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The challenge now is capturing a Pac-12 three-peat. And even more.

“We want to be able to win (a Rose Bowl),” said running back Micah Bernard. “We want to be able to win something bigger than a Pac-12 championship. Those are nice. We want to get another one, but we want something bigger.”

Returning to the offense are quarterback Cam Rising, who suffered a major knee injury in the Rose Bowl. While he sat out during the spring, the hope is that he’ll be able to return for the start of the season when the Utes host Florida. 

Tight end Brant Kuithe, who suffered a season-ending knee injury in September, is also back. 

Offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig was courted by Notre Dame to become the new O-coordinator of the Fighting Irish before deciding to return to Utah.

Defensively, the Utes return a lot of talent and they have reloaded and welcome some key players from the transfer portal, including linebacker Levani Damuni (Stanford), cornerback Miles Battle (Ole Miss) and edge rusher Logan Fano (BYU). 

On special teams, placekicker Cole Becker, a transfer from Colorado, is looking to provide consistency on kickoffs and accuracy on field goals. 

Of course, Utah will have a big target on its back, again, as opposing Pac-12 foes try to knock the Utes off their perch. 

“Nobody’s done that since the Pac-12’s been around,” Whittingham said during spring ball about the possibility of a three-peat. “That’s one of our objectives this next season.”

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Utah has some tough conference road games this fall, at Oregon State, at USC and at Washington. So the road to a third-straight Pac-12 championship won’t be easy. 

But offensive lineman Keaton Bills is optimistic about where the program is headed. 

“The future only gets brighter from here. We’re doing a lot of great things now and we’ve done a lot of great things,” he said. “But I think there are a lot of great things to come.”

2022 record: 10-4 (7-2 Pac-12).

Utah ties

  • WR Cade Baker (Lone Peak HS).
  • QB Bryson Barnes (Milford HS).
  • LB Lander Barton (Brighton HS).
  • TE Noah Bennee (Olympus HS).
  • OL Keaton Bills (Corner Canyon HS).
  • SN Justice Brusatto (Hunter HS).
  • SN Logan Castor (Brighton HS).
  • TE Cody Christensen (Corner Canyon HS).
  • LB Spencer Clegg (American Fork HS).
  • TE Hunter Deuel (American Fork HS).
  • TE Hayden Erickson (American Fork HS).
  • OL Logan Fano (Timpview HS).
  • DE Van Fillinger (Corner Canyon HS).
  • DT Tevita Fotu (Herriman HS).
  • S Austin Francis (Morgan HS).
  • LB Hayden Furey (Westlake HS).
  • OL Alex Harrison (Viewmont HS).
  • CB Nick Howe (Woods Cross HS).
  • WR Franky Jacobson (Woods Cross HS).
  • OL Jaren Kump (Herriman HS).
  • DT James LeBaron (Corner Canyon HS).
  • OL Johnny Maea (East HS).
  • OL Shantiro Mann (Timpview HS).
  • WR Jett Meine (Corner Canyon HS).
  • OL Michael Mokofisi (Woods Cross HS).
  • S Brock Nowatzke (Snow Canyon HS).
  • DE Helaman Ofahengaue (Lehi HS).
  • DT Simone Pepa (Bingham HS).
  • LB Karene Reid (American Fork HS).
  • S Nate Ritchie (Lone Peak HS).
  • RB Hunter Schroeder (Mountain Crest HS).
  • DT Junior Tafuna (Bingham HS).
  • TE Isaac Vaha (Pleasant Grove HS).
  • S Preston Viehweg (American Fork HS).
  • RB Charlie Vincent (East HS).

2023 schedule

  • Aug. 31 Florida.
  • Sept. 9 @Baylor.
  • Sept. 16 Weber State.
  • Sept. 23 UCLA.
  • Sept. 29 @Oregon State.
  • Oct. 14  California.
  • Oct. 21 @USC.
  • Oct. 28 Oregon.
  • Nov. 4 Arizona State.
  • Nov. 11 @Washington. 
  • Nov. 18 @Arizona.
  • Nov. 25 Colorado.
Utah Utes QB Cameron Rising points to his finger
Utah Utes QB Cameron Rising celebrates beating the USC Trojans in the Pac-12 championship game at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas on Friday, Dec. 2, 2022. Rising was injured in the Rose Bowl, but the Utes are optimistic he’ll be ready to go when they open the season against Florida at Rice-Eccles Stadium on Aug. 31. | Ben B. Braun, Deseret News
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