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Utes must be able to reload to be considered among Pac-12 elite

Utah Utes head coach Kyle Whittingham and players celebrate their 35-7 win over the Arizona Wildcats at Arizona Stadium in Tucson, Arizona on Saturday, Nov. 23, 2019.
Utah Utes coach Kyle Whittingham and players celebrate their 35-7 win over the Arizona Wildcats at Arizona Stadium in Tucson, Arizona, on Saturday, Nov. 23, 2019. The Utes open their delayed 2020 season Saturday against Arizona at Rice-Eccles Stadium.
Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

The balance of power in the Pac-12 Conference has been shifting away from the California-based schools and, more specifically, Los Angeles.

USC, once the bully on the block, has won only one league title the last 11 years after winning six of them the previous decade. UCLA, the league enigma, has gone more than two decades without winning the conference title, which is difficult to explain considering its location in one of the hottest recruiting beds in the country. Cal is irrelevant and Stanford has been quiet for several years.

California schools have been absent in the last two conference championship games.

Oregon and Washington have filled the void in recent years, but Utah, the new kid, is on the cusp of joining them as one of the league powers. The Utes, who joined the Pac-12 in 2011, have appeared in the last two championship games (and lost).

They also had the most NFL draft picks in the conference last season, with seven. That was no fluke. They tie Washington for the most draft picks during the last six years, with 26.

It follows that the Utes have also had the most appearances in the final Associated Press Top 25 rankings during the last six years, with four. They are followed by Stanford, Washington and USC with three apiece.

Can the Utes, still looking for their first Pac-12 championship, become one of the consistent threats in the league year in and year out? To rise to that level, a team must be able to reload consistently from season to season regardless of graduation losses, and this year’s iteration of the Utes must replace many players, and many key players.

That’s the challenge they face as they open (belatedly) the 2020 season against Arizona Saturday in Salt Lake City (the Pac-12 has finally decided to join the fray eight weeks into the season).

The Utes lost those seven players to the NFL draft and that doesn’t count their starting quarterback or his backup. The Utes’ losses include their all-time leading rusher, as well as their top five defensive backs and best linebacker among the nine defensive starters who are gone. All of which is why the Utes are picked to finish no better than third in the South Division, the weaker of the league’s two divisions (the North Division champion has won the league championship game eight out of nine times).

It’s relevant to note that, despite leading the league in NFL draft picks, the Utes do not sign nearly the number of blue-chip recruits that their Pac-12 counterparts do. As Jon Wilner of the Mercury News wrote last spring, “... No coaching staff in the conference does a better job identifying talent that fits the system, and then developing that talent.”

That bodes well for a team that has to replace so many top players.

“You’ve got to be able to reload and respond,” Whittingham told the Register-Guard. “And that’s what our objective is right now, to get everybody positioned where they should be and playing at the level they need to be playing at.”

The one position everyone is watching of course is quarterback. The Utes are being coy about their starter and will be right up to Saturday’s pregame warmups, but they might have tipped their hand a couple of weeks ago when Jake Bentley was named one of the team captains. Bentley started 33 games at quarterback for the University of South Carolina and was team captain for three seasons. He threw for 7,527 yards, 55 touchdowns and 32 interceptions, and compiled a 19-14 record as a starter.

In his best season, he threw for 3,171 yards, 27 touchdowns and 14 interceptions, mostly against SEC competition, and was voted MVP of the Outback Bowl. He missed last season with an injury and transferred to Utah. At 6-foot-4, he is a drop-back passer (he rushed for only 143 yards at South Carolina). That will require offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig to adapt his offense accordingly.

The Utes face a big challenge in replacing so many key players, but if they aspire to be a consistent force in the Pac-12 they have to meet that challenge.