Monson: Can Utah win the Pac-12 title?

August 20, 2016 GMT

Quarterback Tyler Huntley and receiver Tim Patrick stood about 20 yards apart from one another in the hot late-morning sun after a recent Utah practice. Both were tired, huffing and puffing. Both were still padded up, decked in their gear. Both were sweated through, looking as though they had walked in front of a fire hose, having paid the required toll for passage through another day.

Neither had any idea what the other was saying when asked the same question, or even that the same question was being asked, and their answers were equally aggressive: Can the Utes win the Pac-12 this season?

Said Huntley: “Definitely. That’s our expectation, to win the Pac-12 and make a run for the national championship. We’ve come out here every day in fall camp and busted our butts. That’s given us confidence. We’re going against the best defense every day. And that defense is going against a great offense. We know what we can do.”

Said Patrick: “Yeah, there’s enough talent and chemistry here. A lot of the guys were overlooked for whatever reasons. Now, it’s our time to show all those schools that skipped out on us what we’re made of. That’s what we’re trying to do this season, bring that kind of winning, excitement and fun. It’s a lot of motivation. I have hate for every team in the Pac-12 except Utah. I wouldn’t bet against the Utes. For any gamblers out there, that would be the wrong decision.”

Out of every fall camp for every college football team springs a general theme, a collective sense for what’s going on. Sometimes, it’s cloaked apprehension. Sometimes, it’s drummed up bravado. Sometimes, it’s anticipation. Sometimes, it’s hope and a prayer. Sometimes, it’s fear.

For these Utes, it’s confidence.

And it’s not just the players who have it.

Coaches who normally are conservative in their assessments — like Kyle Whittingham and Morgan Scalley — are feeling fine about what’s taking place and what’s shaping up for the weeks ahead.

“The players are very confident,” said Whittingham. “They work hard. The work ethic has to match the confidence and the swagger. This team’s work ethic is very good. It’s one thing to talk the talk, but you’ve got to walk the walk, and, so far, these guys have done that every practice.”

Defensive coordinator Scalley, who was asked about accomplishing great deeds before the undefeated 2004 season, his senior year playing at safety for the Utes, had a feeling about that team. While he put no such projection on this group, he did see some commonality:

“I love how competitive the offense is, not just the defense. This is a camp where it’s really been back and forth. We’ve got some skill players who are showing a lot. We’ve got quarterbacks who are competing well. Troy [Williams] has been doing an unbelievable job. It’s nice to see offensive progression. They’ve taken it to us at times. That’s how it was back when I played. Going back and forth between Alex [Smith] and us. These guys have a passion for football. I’m excited where we’re headed. You have to stay healthy. There has to be some luck involved. But I love the way these guys work and compete.”

After winning nine games in 2014 and 10 games in 2015, flirting with a shot at a division and conference title, it seems the Utes have built their program to the point now where their eyes are focused on one thing: getting to the pinnacle.

There will be no moral victories in 2016.

The offense, which Whittingham singled out as the major reason Utah fell short of a title last season, specifically the passing game, has looked proficient over the first weeks of camp. It will have to continue on that upward arc. And the defense appears rock steady, same as it ever was. One national publication listed Utah’s front as the second-best defensive line in the country, behind Alabama’s. Another ranked the back end of Utah’s defense among the nation’s top six.

“We can be good,” said defensive end Hunter Dimick. “Just with the experience we have, everyone’s got the right mindset, everyone’s healthy. I’ve never been this excited going into a season for the potential we have. The way practices have been looking, everyone knows their assignment, everyone’s flying around, better than they ever have at this time of year, everybody’s doing the right things, everybody’s really clicking together. It’s pretty exciting.”

That’s what a whiff of roses will do to you.

While some remain uncertain and unconvinced about the prospects of Utah winning a Pac-12 title, the Utes themselves are certain and convinced, without being fatheaded or caught up in their own certainty. As Patrick said, they have the talent, the motivation. As Whittingham and Huntley said, they’re working hard to that end.

And after practices, in the summer heat, they’re looking spent, as though they’re suffering and sweating, striding in front of a fire hose, paying the toll for that kind of reward.

GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Spence Checketts weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone. Twitter: @GordonMonson.