Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said he started discussing the possibility of preseason hype with his team a few months back.
The idea, he said, was to get the players to shift their attention to the process.
"We all know that the Pac-12 championship is our goal, as I'm sure it is for every team in the Pac-12, so the focus is not on the goal, it's how are we going to achieve that goal," the veteran Utes coach said. "That's the key, is to take the process day by day and just worry about what you've got to do that day to take a step in the right direction to achieve what you want to achieve."
There's reason for the hype. The Utes were selected to win the Pac-12 in the league's preseason media poll and they're being looked at favorably nationally.
The Utes return quarterback Tyler Huntley, who threw for 1,788 yards with 12 touchdowns last season but missed the final five games because of a broken collarbone. Huntley also rushed for 304 yards and another four scores.
Zack Moss, who decided to stay for his senior year rather than bolt for the NFL, has had back-to-back 1,000-yard rushing seasons. He amassed 1,096 yards and 11 touchdowns last season before he went down with a knee injury. Like Huntley, Moss was hurt in a 38-20 loss to Arizona State and missed the final five games.
Moss fully buys into Whittingham's approach: "This team, at the heart and the core, still has an underdog mentality and it's very good for us."
Despite losing their stars down the stretch, the Utes averaged 30 points per game last season — even after failing to score a touchdown in a 10-3 loss to Washington in the Pac-12 title game. Utah blew an early lead over Northwestern in the Holiday Bowl to finish 9-5.
The Utes, who have won at least nine games in four of the last five seasons, return 14 starters, including seven on offense and seven on defense.
ALL ABOUT THAT D: Utah's defense was ranked 14th nationally last season, allowing opponents an average of 306.2 yards a game. The Utes were especially stout against the run, with foes managing just over 100 yards per game on average, to rank fifth nationally. Many believe the defensive line — with left end Bradlee Anae and tackle Leki Fotu — is one of the best units in the country. The key will be replacing departed linebackers Chase Hansen and Cody Barton.
WHITTINGHAM'S LEGACY: Whittingham is officially the dean of the Pac-12's coaches, about to embark on his 15th season in charge of the Utes. He's third on the list of longest-tenured coaches currently active at the FBS level, behind Iowa's Kirk Ferentz (21 seasons) and TCU's Gary Patterson (19 seasons).
LUDWIG'S BACK: Andy Ludwig is returning for his second stint as offensive coordinator at Utah. He was also on Whittingham's staff from 2005-08. Ludwig spent the past four seasons at Vanderbilt.
"I've got a great deal of respect for Andy. We're very similar in the way we approach the game. There's a lot of compatibility there, and he's a meticulous, detail-oriented guy," Whittingham said.
SCHEDULE: The Utes open the season with a Thursday night game on the road against BYU. The Holy War was at the end of the season last year, before the Pac-12 title game, which Whittingham said felt odd. He wasn't sure about the rivalry game being the opener, either.
"I think the positive is all our nonconference games are up front, which is how we like it, getting those three games out of the way and then playing Pac-12 the rest of the way," he said.
Utah opens the Pac-12 schedule at USC, where the Utes haven't won since 1916. But they get to skip Oregon and Stanford this season because of the unbalanced schedule.
EARLY STARTS: While many in the Pac-12 were bemoaning the possibility of early morning starts this season, Whittingham is fine with them.
"Would love it. The only thing better than 10:00 a.m. is 9:00 a.m. or 8:00 a.m.," he said. "The sooner we can get the ball in the air, that's great."
AP freelancer John Coon in Salt Lake City contributed to this report.
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