Perhaps the change in sentiment is just the Utes looking through Rose Bowl-colored glasses. Utah enters its second year in the Pac-12 singing a little different tune than the one they performed at the end of the 2011 season.
Coming off a 4-5 record in the Pac-12 South, Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said the step up from the Mountain West (the Utes' home from 1999-2010) was a learning experience that would help the program become better prepared for Year 2 in the BCS conference.
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Now, Whittingham says the experimental year yielded no surprises.
"Looking at last year, it was about what we expected; I don't think anything caught us by surprise or off-guard," Whittingham said during Utah's media day in Universal City, Calif. "We expected a bunch of good players in the league, which we got. It seems like every week we are facing a great running back, receiving corps, quarterback, and I would say, without a doubt, it was as we expected it to be."
The Utes, after all, certainly seem in better position to compete for a Pac-12 South championship in 2012. They have nine starters returning on offense, including quarterback Jordan Wynn, and seven on defense.
The Utes have a bye week before facing South Division favorite Southern California, and they don't have to play Oregon or Stanford from the North.
When Wynn went down for the year with a shoulder injury in Week 4, Plan B was to insert untested transfer Jon Hays. Despite the lack of a formidable passing attack, the Utes won five of their final six, including a 30-27 OT win over Georgia Tech in the Sun Bowl.
Now, Hays returns with experience and true freshman Travis Wilson and Chase Hansen played so well in the spring that Whittingham wouldn't rule them out of competing for the job in the fall.
HEAD COACH: Kyle Whittingham, eighth year at Utah, eighth year overall, 66-25 record as a head coach.
MOST IMPORTANT PLAYER: Senior defensive tackle Star Lotulelei was the Pac-12 Outstanding Defensive Lineman in 2011 and has been named to four preseason watch lists. He could be the best DL in the nation, and is the key to a Utah defense that starts with stopping the run. Lotulelei could've gone early to the NFL but decided to stay to make himself a more complete player. If he gets there, the Utes could be have of the best defenses in the country.
BREAKOUT STAR: It's hard to call a player who was a freshman All-America last season a breakout star, but free safety Eric Rowe has the potential to make a greater impact in 2012 in a pass-happy conference. Rowe had 69 tackles with an interception and 10 passes defended in 2011. Playing alongside veteran strong safety Brian Blechen and veteran cornerback Ryan Lacy, Rowe is going to get opportunities to make plays in the defensive backfield this season.
NEWCOMER TO WATCH: Redshirt freshman rover linebacker LT Filiaga is competing for a starting position and could add to the physical presence the Utes will bring on defense. He weighs 245 pounds and will help the Utes bring muscle to the line of scrimmage. Filiaga is back from a two-year church mission and has filled out his body. He'll start fall camp as the co-starter at the rover but stands to improve more through the course of fall camp after being away from football.
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KEYS TO SUCCESS: The Utes have one of the most reliable running backs in the conference in senior John White, who ran for 1,519 yards last season. They are arguably the most physical team in the conference, which can help them against more talented teams such as USC. The Utes will look to continue to pound the ball at opponents and look to lead the conference in rush defense for the second consecutive year. If they can get a semblance of a deep passing game with Wynn back at the controls, they should be in the thick of the Pac-12 South race.
AREAS OF CONCERN: Wynn's presence makes Utah's deep passing game a legitimate threat, but the WRs don't scare a lot of defenses, despite the experience of seniors DeVonte Christopher, Luke Matthews and Reggie Dunn. The Utes also have three starters returning in the secondary but still need to prove that they can shut down the prolific passing teams in the league.
-- Utah's inclusion in the Pac-12 has inadvertently put a temporary end to its annual rivalry game against Brigham Young. The teams, which have met every year since 1946, will suspend their series in 2014 and 2015.
-- The Utes have some impressive bloodlines in their program. Receiver Dres Anderson is the son of 10-year NFL WR Willie "Flipper" Anderson. Sophomore CB Chandler Johnson's father, Eddie (1984-88), is Utah's career rushing leader. Defensive linemen Dave and Joe Kruger's father Paul played for Oregon State and older brother Paul played for Utah and is now in his fourth season with the Baltimore Ravens. WR Luke Matthews' father, John, was a two-time U.S. Olympian in Greco-Roman wrestling. TE Jake Murphy's father is former baseball player Dale Murphy, a two-time NL MVP and six-time All-Star. TE Dallin Rogers' father Doug played football for Stanford and for three NFL teams from 1982-88. LB Jason Whittingham is the nephew of head coach Kyle Whittingham. Jason Whittingham's father, Cary, played for BYU and the Los Angeles Rams.
-- Wynn applied for and was granted an extra year of eligibility after suffering a season-ending shoulder injury in the fourth game of the 2011 season. Wynn, who is a junior, is projected to start for his fourth season.
-- RB Harvey Langi announced in June that he would go on a two-year church mission.
-- OL Marc Pouvave, a transfer from Southwestern Community (Calif.) College, suffered a torn Achilles tendon July 26 and is lost for the season. He was expected to battle Percy Taumoelau for the starting job at left tackle.
-- The Utes have received eight commitments for the 2013 season, including DL Sam Tevi of Euless (Texas) Trinity High School. Tevi had an offer from Brigham Young