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Kragthorpe: Utes can only talk now, before Pac-12's true tests come

Published July 25, 2011 11:50 pm
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2011, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Los Angeles

Technically, they're only talking.

Yet for the Utah Utes, having coach Kyle Whittingham and offensive lineman Tony Bergstrom appear Tuesday during the Pac-12 Conference's Football Media Day at the Fox headquarters represents an arrival.

It's hitting home now. They're part of this thing.

The event is being staged 12 miles and 46 days from Utah's date with USC in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, where the Utes will take the field in their first Pac-12 football game. Only then will questions about Utah's ability to play at this level produce any answers.

For now, there's considerable curiosity about the Utes — never mind that Whittingham and Bergstrom are the last scheduled speakers among the 12 player-coach combinations Tuesday.

When the official media poll is released, the Utes are certain to receive some first-place votes in the Pac-12 South race. They're likely to rank third overall, behind USC and Arizona State. Colorado, the other newcomer, is pretty much a universal last-place choice.

That will illustrate the favorable perception of Utah's program. What makes this so interesting is that nobody can say for sure how it will all turn out for the Utes in this first season. They could win the South and play for the Pac-12 championship; they could struggle to qualify for a bowl game.

That's what's fun about this. No school in modern college football history has done what the Utes are doing. As former outsiders of the Bowl Championship Series conferences, they're moving into a BCS league that was not having to replace departing members.

It was different when Louisville, Cincinnati and South Florida moved up from Conference USA, because the Big East desperately needed them. None of those schools had built anything resembling Utah's football credentials. That's why there's so much wondering about how the Utes will do.

The Utes have won two BCS games in the past seven seasons. They've won 50 games over five years.

And now they've traded Mountain West Conference competition for a Pac-12 schedule that offers them both Rose Bowl access and a week-after-week challenge that may serve as a shock to their system. December's prospects of Utah's playing in the Las Vegas Bowl or the New Mexico Bowl could offer readily available irony.

Logically, the Utes should finish about 6-3 in conference play, earn a middle-tier bowl invitation in their first Pac-12 season and build from there, once they've discovered what it takes to play in this league.

But I'm saying 2011 offers them the best chance they will have to play in the Rose Bowl in their first five years in this league.

USC is ineligible for the title game, so the Utes only have to finish second in the South. They host Arizona State, another South favorite. They miss North powers Oregon and Stanford in the scheduling rotation.

Then, even if the Utes are playing on the road, anything could happen in the championship game.

That's the beauty of July. This is the time to imagine the possibilities. Tuesday's agenda is just talking. Whittingham is good at that; Bergstrom is exceptional. The Utes will get good reviews from Media Day.

In September, across town at the Coliseum, the grading truly begins.

kkragthorpe@sltrib.comTwitter: @tribkurt facebook.com/kurtkragthorpe




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