LAS VEGAS — Even if the Utah Utes weren’t picked to win a third consecutive Pac-12 football championship game by the media members who cover the league, it was clearly evident at Friday’s gathering at Resorts World Las Vegas that coach Kyle Whittingham’s program has won the respect of its fellow competitors.

“I have the utmost respect for them. They have done a tremendous job over a long period of time building that roster. It has taken on the personality of (their) coach. They know what they want to be. They’re really good at it. I have a ton of respect for them.” — USC coach Lincoln Riley

The Utes have gone from hunters to hunted, and that will likely remain the case when two longtime conference bullies — USC and UCLA — depart for the Big Ten after the 2023-24 school year.

“I have the utmost respect for them,” second-year USC coach Lincoln Riley said. “They have done a tremendous job over a long period of time building that roster. It has taken on the personality of coach (Whittingham). They know what they want to be. They’re really good at it. I have a ton of respect for them.”

Riley quickly turned around USC’s program last year, to some extent, and the Trojans are picked to win the championship game at nearby Allegiant Stadium in a little more than four months. Washington is picked second.

Not surprisingly, the Trojans and Ducks have the first- and second-team quarterbacks, according to the media: Heisman Trophy winner Caleb Williams (USC) and Michael Penix Jr. (Washington). They also have reputations as being league leaders.

But make no mistake about it. Utah is the big dog on the block now, and its fellow competitors seem to know it.

“They’ve done a great job of it, they’ve got no weaknesses,” Riley continued. “We had two tremendous games with them last year. We are looking forward to having them visit L.A. this fall.”

The Utes play the Trojans at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on Oct. 21, which very well could be the game that decides one of the participants in Las Vegas.

“It has been a great series,” Whittingham said when asked if he will miss playing USC. “Will we miss it? To be determined. All we are doing right now is focusing on this year.”

Then Whittingham, sincerely or not, referenced USC as having Williams, while also noting that it was “crazy to me” that his own quarterback, Cam Rising, did not receive any preseason accolades from the media.

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“He’s the Heisman Trophy winner, so he’s the best player in college football, I guess you could say,” Whittingham said of the player whom the Utes beat twice last year, 43-42 in Salt Lake City and 47-24 in the title game in Vegas.

While media members fawned over Williams, Riley and other quarterbacks such as Oregon’s Bo Nix (who apparently babysits UO coach Dan Lanning’s kids), Rising and the Utes somewhat quietly went about their business Friday in Sin City with far less fanfare.

That’s Whittingham’s way.

“Let’s find out during the season,” Rising said when asked where he sees himself among Pac-12 quarterbacks.

No boasting. No bragging. Just a quiet confidence. If there was any pushing of Rising to get more respect, it came from his coach — and teammate Cole Bishop, a defensive back.

“I think we’re in a good place. Of course, we have our quarterback coming back, Cam Rising, tremendous player. Absolute leader of our football team,” Whittingham said. “He’s the alpha dog of our team.”

The 19th-year head coach said the Utes are “strong up front,” as they almost always are.

“Line of scrimmage should be very good for us,” Whittingham continued. “We’ve had some good recruiting classes that we’ve stacked up the last few years. Cautiously optimistic going into this season.”

Bishop was asked what it will take to get the Utes over the hump this year, a strange question for a team looking for a three-peat. Utah is at the top of the Pac-12 mountain, which may come as a surprise to some of the reporters crammed into the Zouk Nightclub inside Resorts World.

“I would say the biggest thing is probably our depth. At every position, we are at least two deep. Defensive line, probably three deep. Linebacker, probably three deep. And in the secondary we are getting there,” Bishop said. “It is a long season. Having depth is big. People get hurt. If you can have a guy who is just as good come in and do the same thing and not fall (off) is a big thing.”

USC’s Williams was asked if USC can “overtake” Utah in the trenches this year. Line play made a big difference in Utah’s rout of the Trojans last December.

“We need (trust and unity) to go beat a team like Utah to go beat a team like Oregon, the teams we play against at the end of the season,” Williams said.

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Is there a chance the Utes get complacent? No way, they said, chuckling at the notion.

“Yeah, I think (what drives Utah in 2023) is very easy,” Whittingham said. “Nobody has ever three-peated in the Pac-12. That’s one right there that we can accomplish that has not been done.”

Whittingham, 63, also mentioned that the Utes haven’t made it to the College Football Playoff.

“That’s something else we’re looking at,” he said. “There are a lot of things that we have yet to accomplish at Utah and we are excited about getting another opportunity this year to try to raise the bar even higher.”

And perhaps earn a few more votes, and more respect from the media, in next year’s preseason poll.

USC head coach Lincoln Riley answers questions at Pac-12 media day Friday, July 21, 2023, in Las Vegas. The Trojans were pegged by Pac-12 media members to win the conference this year, but the second-year USC coach had plenty of praise for the defending two-time champion Utes. | Lucas Peltier, Associated Press