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Utah Utes — stocked with returning talent — in position to take a big step, build off last season

Utah favored to win its first Pac-12 championship.

SALT LAKE CITY — After winning their first outright Pac-12 South title in 2018, the Utah Utes are poised to take the next step. They topped the conference’s preseason media poll as favorites to repeat as division champs and claim their first Pac-12 crown.

Will everything come up roses — as in the Rose Bowl — for the Utes?

Is this a statement season for a program entering its ninth year in a Power Five conference? Expectations are high for a team earning its highest preseason ranking — No. 14 in the Associated Press Top 25.

“Every season is a statement season. Every season is different than another,” said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. “You’ve got to get your guys ready to come out and play the best you can possibly play and win as many games as you can possibly win.”

Whittingham added that there is no season that is more important than another. The Utes, though, are building off of last year’s first-place mark of 6-3 in the Pac-12 South. They wound up 9-5 overall — losing 10-3 to Washington in the conference championship game and 31-20 to Northwestern in the Holiday Bowl.

The losses didn’t hamper the optimism associated with having 47 returning lettermen, including 14 starters. High-profile returnees include defensive end Bradlee Anae, safety Julian Blackmon, wide receiver Britain Covey, defensive tackle Leki Fotu, quarterback Tyler Huntley, cornerback Jaylon Johnson, running back Zack Moss and defensive tackle John Penisini.

“You like to build on the past season. I can say that for certain,” Whittingham said. “We accomplished some things last year but not our ultimate goal, and so we still have a lot of stuff that we need to accomplish as a program.”

Whittingham noted that’s the case each season.

“We’re trying to get that done,” he said. “There’s no year where we try harder than another to get that done.”

The Utes, though, are a determined bunch.

“I do think we need to make that statement, prove people right,” Anae said. “There’s a lot of hype around us and it’s just one of those seasons where we’re not the underdogs anymore so we need to handle that and just be focused every week.”

Utah’s path begins Thursday at BYU. Although the rivalry game is a nonconference affair, it carries importance on several fronts.

“Definitely. No matter who it is, you never want to get off on the wrong foot,” Moss said. “Being the first game and them being the guys ‘Down South,’ you definitely don’t want to lose to those guys. We want to keep this thing rolling for years.”

Utah Utes defensive end Maxs Tupai (92) runs down Brigham Young Cougars wide receiver Aleva Hifo (15) as BYU and Utah play at Rice Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 24, 2018.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

The Utes have won 11 straight season openers and topped BYU eight consecutive times.

“The rivalry game being the opener certainly has the attention of our players,” Whittingham said. “But we go about our business the same way as we always do throughout the course of fall camp and getting ready for the season.”

That may be the statement that most aptly describes Whittingham’s program. The Utes have posted five consecutive winning seasons and 12 of 14 such campaigns under his direction.

“Right when we got in the league (in 2011) we knew the bar had been raised in every area — from facilities to recruiting to everything (and) the personnel that we had,” Whittingham said. “When we first got in the league, we felt we matched up really well at the line of scrimmage but not so well in the perimeters. So it took us a lot of years to continue to recruit and develop and get the roster where we needed to get it to be competitive.”

Now comes the next step.

“We’re still not a finished product. I don’t know anybody that is,” Whittingham said. “But we feel like we’re certainly better equipped right now than at any time that we’ve been in the league to be competitive.”

A favorable schedule featuring five Pac-12 games at home and no meetings with Oregon or Stanford could make things more favorable in that regard.

Mix that in with experience and the Utes could be prime to make a strong statement in 2019. The addition of offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig is expected to provide a spark as well.

Whittingham is confident progress is being made as the Utes try to get over the hump and win a Pac-12 title.

“Getting close doesn’t really make many people happy,” he said. “You’ve got to have that breakthrough.”