Utes eager to prove themselves against Pac-12
Move to Pac-12 creates tough stretch of schedule for Utah.
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I fell into a burning ring of fire/I went down, down, down and the flames went higher/And it burns, burns, burns, the ring of fire/The ring of fire

The lyrics above are from Johnny Cash's hit song "Ring of Fire," a country piece that Utah coach Kyle Whittingham has taken to playing at practice during the bye week.

It's not exactly the kind of tune one would expect to hear as Utah's players grunt their way through sprints, and Whittingham wouldn't reveal the reason behind his decision to play the tune incessantly, but we can only guess it has something to do with the challenges the Utes are about to face.

Utah steps into its own version of a ring of fire this week as it begins a schedule like none other in the program's history.

Washington, Arizona State, Pittsburgh, Cal and on and on the schedule goes, one week after another of opponents whose quality the Utes have faced just once or twice in the past or maybe in a bowl game.

It is the type of schedule BCS veteran teams say separates them from the mid-major teams that might have one or two high-quality opponents on their schedule buffered by so-called cupcake games.

But this is why the Utes (2-1, 0-1) joined the Pac-12, they say, to test their mettle against teams from a premier college football league every week.

They can only hope they don't get charred to a crisp in their ring of fire, starting with Saturday's game against Washington.

The Huskies (3-1, 1-0) are coming off a 31-23 win over Cal.

"We've got nine straight weeks where we have to be ready to go because they are going to hit us week after week," Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said. "We have to be up to the task. We haven't played a schedule like this; it's very challenging, but we're excited. This is what it is about, challenging yourselves."

Perhaps the closest the Utes have come to playing such a schedule was at the end of the 2010 season, when they had home games against TCU and BYU and played at Notre Dame and San Diego State, then faced Boise State in the Las Vegas Bowl.

Utah didn't fare that well in the stretch, going 2-3. But that was last season and while the games might have given the Utes a taste of what is ahead, the Utes believe they can do much better this year against good competition.

"It's a tough schedule, but as a player you want to go against the best," defensive end Derrick Shelby said. "Things went well for us against BYU, but we have to fix the things we didn't do well and keep it going."

While they don't have any experience facing a schedule like the one they are about to take on, the Utes believe their ability to focus on each game as it comes will help them. Teams like to say they focus week to week, but the Utes have shown a particularly strong ability to do so ever since they lost at UNLV in 2007 following an upset of UCLA at home.

"We know it's a tough road ahead and every Saturday we are going to have a good game," quarterback Jordan Wynn said. "But we're a tough group mentally and we know we have to keep preparing like we have in the past. Just like this week, you go over your last game, pack it up and get ready for the next week."

The Utes' back-to-back games against USC and BYU gave them a taste of what is ahead, they said, and since they handled those two games well, they see no reason why they can't succeed against the future schedule.

"We've learned if we don't beat ourselves, we have a chance to compete in every game," receiver DeVonte Christopher said. "We're looking forward to this, week in and week out we know we are going to face a good group of competitors. This is the reason we wanted to play in the Pac-12."

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Washington at Utah

P Saturday, 5 p.m., ROOT