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Kyle Whittingham said it best in Los Angeles last month: "We haven't done anything yet — we haven't won a championship."

The Utah football program is long finished with its "adjustment period" from the Mountain West era. It has gradually morphed from its role as a Pac-12 expansion team to legitimate contender in the South that finished in the Top 25 the last two seasons. But the one thing that remains for a program that has depth, experience and a chip on its shoulder is to actually start hanging conference championship banners.

As the Utes have learned painfully the last two years, the difference between contender and champion is being able to pass the ball. And that's where Utah will have to make its biggest strides to deliver on its promise.

Over the last two seasons, the Utes are 11-7 in conference play — a relatively strong showing in perhaps the nation's most cannibalistic league. But tucked in those seven losses are a series of one-score heart-breakers — Washington State and Arizona State in 2014, and UCLA and Arizona in 2015 especially — in which the Utes could have prevailed by either building on an existing lead, or simply being able to score points in the fourth quarter.

With the ascension of newcomer Troy Williams to starting quarterback and an overhauled receiving corps, there is rising hope internally that Utah will have the passing attack it takes to win those games.

"Expect a competitor," senior receiver Tim Patrick said of Williams. "He's ready to lead us to a championship. I'm going to be right there with him catching passes."

While the Utes themselves may be confident, others aren't so sure. Utah narrowly missed the Associated Press' preseason Top 25, finishing third in the "others receiving votes" category. But if Utah can find a passing game that can finish better than ninth in the league (Utah's best ranking), the rest of the program is built to win now.

On defense, the Utes return two first-team all-conference players in defensive tackle Lowell Lotulelei and safety Marcus Williams. Six other starters are back, and the unit is particularly in good hands up front (with Hunter Dimick and Kylie Fitts as ends) and in the back (with Reggie Porter, Dominique Hatfield and Justin Thomas as multi-year defensive back starters). The main question mark is at linebacker, where a mix of Sunia Tauteoli, Cody Barton and Kavika Luafatasaga will be given the tough task of replacing a pair of great seniors — Gionni Paul and Jared Norris.

Assuming Williams is ready to sling it, the Utes front line is set to protect him. Led by senior J.J. Dielman, a tackle-turned-center, the offensive line has four returning starters. The one newbie is expected to be Garett Bolles, a five-star junior college prospect. The tight end group is deep, as are the running backs, led by senior Joe Williams who took over starting duties at the end of 2015.

A buzzsaw of a schedule awaits in conference play, starting at home with another contender in USC. The Utes don't get a bye until November, which could mean they'll be beat up for key games at UCLA and against Washington. But as another Whittingham saying goes: 'No one cares about excuses.'

They only care if you win.

Twitter: @kylegoon —

The Utes will succeed if ...

Troy Williams, right, and his receivers are the real deal. The junior college transfer needs to show both the promise he had in high school, and the consistency he showed in camp. If he can, opponents can't be able to stack the box against running back Joe Williams. The secondary will need the same ballhawking ability it had last year, and the pass rush needs to get home more often.

The Utes won't succeed if ...

There's more of the same on offense. If Utah's conservative mode of ball control continues and erases the threat of the passing game, then Utah will struggle to win against high-scoring teams, especially on the road. Linebacker is an obvious question mark on defense, and if the players aren't ready for prime time, there will be holes in the scheme.

The bottom line

You don't need to be told: It's the passing game. Williams needs to be good. Tim Patrick, Tyrone Smith, left, and Kyle Fulks, right, need to be good. The Utes have proven talent in virtually every area of the team except the passing game. It's what has separated — and could continue to separate — Utah from its goal of finally winning the South and getting a shot at the Pac-12 title.

Depth Chart


LT • Garett Bolles, Jr., 6-5, 300; Jackson Barton, Soph., 6-7, 310

LG • Isaac Asiata, Sr., 6-3, 323; Johnny Capra, 6-6, 300

C • J.J. Dielman, Sr., 6-5, 300; Lo Falemaka, Jr., 6-5, 300

RG • Salesi Uhatafe, Jr., 6-5, 315; Nick Nowakowski, Sr., 6-1, 295

RT • Sam Tevi, Sr., 6-6, 305; Jackson Barton, Soph., 6-7, 310

TE • Harrison Handley, Jr., 6-5, 250 OR Evan Moeai, Sr., 6-2, 235

QB • Troy Williams, Jr., 6-2, 200; Tyler Huntley, Fr., 6-1, 190

RB • Joe Williams, Sr., 5-11, 205; Troy McCormick, Jr., 5-9, 178

WR • Tyrone Smith, Soph., 6-4, 205; Caleb Repp, Soph., 6-5, 210

SR • Kyle Fulks, Jr., 5-9, 178; Demari Simpkins, Fr., 5-10, 184

WR • Tim Patrick, Sr., 6-5, 210; Raelon Singleton, Soph., 6-3, 215


LE • Kylie Fitts, Sr., 6-4, 265; Bradlee Anae, Fr., 6-3, 243

DT • Filipo Mokofisi, Jr., 6-3, 278; Pasoni Tasini, Sr., 6-3, 295

DT • Lowell Lotulelei, Jr., 6-2, 310; Alani Havili-Katoa, Soph., 6-3, 295

RE • Hunter Dimick, Sr., 6-3, 272; Pita Taumoepenu, Sr., 6-1, 245

LB • Sunia Tauteoli, Jr., 6-0, 226; Donavan Thompson, Fr., 5-10, 230

LB • Cody Barton, Soph., 6-2, 232 OR Kavika Luafatasaga, Jr., 6-4, 237

CB • Dominique Hatfield, Sr., 5-10, 175; Tavaris Williams, Soph., 5-11, 185

CB • Reginald Porter, Sr., 5-11, 185; Brian Allen, Sr., 6-3, 205

NB • Justin Thomas, Sr., 5-8, 180; Boobie Hobbs, Jr., 5-10, 180

FS • Marcus Williams, Jr., 6-1, 195; Andre Godfrey, Jr., 5-10, 191

SS • Chase Hansen, Soph., 6-3, 216; Jason Thompson, Sr., 6-2, 208

Special teams

P • Mitch Wishnowsky, Soph., 6-2, 220

K • Andy Phillips, Sr., 5-10, 210

LS • Chase Dominguez, Sr., 6-5, 240

PR • Boobie Hobbs, Jr., 5-10, 180

KR • Joe Williams, Sr., 5-11, 205; Troy McCormick, Jr., 5-9, 178

Schedule analysis

Sept. 1 vs. Southern Utah, 6 p.m. • The T-Birds gave Utah State a run last year, but Utes shouldn't expect trouble.

Sept. 10 vs. BYU, 5:30 p.m. • The rivalry resumes with Kyle Whittingham taking on his one-time protege.

Sept. 17 at San Jose State, 8:30 p.m. MDT • Spartans' passing attack should give Utes a trial run for Pac-12 offenses.

Sept. 23 vs. USC, 7 p.m. • A prime time home game should set the tone for Utah's expectations this season.

Oct. 1 at Cal • With a new quarterback, can Golden Bears pay back the Utes for GameDay loss?

Oct. 8 vs. Arizona • Rich Rodriguez always seems to be able to move the ball against Utah's defense.

Oct. 15 at Oregon State • The Beavers are rebuilding, but figure to improve in Gary Andersen's second year.

Oct. 22 at UCLA • Another premier battle against Josh Rosen and company with South title implications.

Oct. 29 vs. Washington • If the Huskies live up to preseason hype, this could be the biggest home game of the year.

Nov. 10 at Arizona State • The Utes have been bedeviled in Tempe in the past, but ASU might be caught rebuilding.

Nov. 19 vs. Oregon • The Ducks have a lot of motivation after Utah dismantled them in Eugene last year.

Nov. 26 at Colorado • Could be a make-or-break game for Mike MacIntyre, as Buffs try to climb from the basement.