Op-Ed: Kyle Whittingham and Utah are where they want to be, respected but not hyped

The Utes come into the season ready to control their own destiny in the Big 12
Christopher Creveling-USA TODAY Sports
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In the current landscape of college football, Utah finds itself in a truly ideal situation. Most fans want to hear their team mentioned nationally with the usual customers. However, that typically is an indicator of national respect. If your team can be mentioned with the likes of Georgia, Alabama, Ohio State, Texas, Michigan and Oregon, you can rest easy that those outside your market recognize and show respect by putting them in that conversation. For Utah, searching for validation through that metric, at least for now, is not necessary.

In the latest ESPN top 25 rankings, the Utes are mentioned in fact with those names. Behind Georgia, Ohio State and Texas, but ahead of Michigan, Florida State and LSU. The respect factor is present. You can see it almost anywhere in major college football circles. Whether it’s the television networks, CFB reporters or platforms. Almost everywhere you look, Utah is getting the respect part without hesitation. Due in large part to the return of Cam Rising and a focused approach to the transfer portal.

Utah finds themselves in an advantageous position on the field before they ever take the field. They finished the last year’s campaign with a lower win total than expected. However, a large portion of that comes back to an offense that was not whole and didn’t have their preferred signal caller due to a knee injury. Prior to Rising being out, he led the Utes to back-to-back Pac-12 championships and an eventual Rose Bowl appearance.

Utah picked to win 2024 Big 12 Championship in preseason media poll

Even coming off their 8-5 finish, almost every national publication that puts out a preseason Top 25 ranking has Utah slotted above the 20th spot. Not to throw shade, but 247Sports is the only real outlier, ranking the Utes at 18th in the country. Every other big national outlet has Utah somewhere between 8th and 14th. Putting them right in that discussion with the best programs entering the 2024 season. It would also suggest making the 12-team College Football playoff is not an unrealistic goal.

The factor that Utes fans don’t have to contend with is the hype dynamic. The national media seems content to respect Utah from a distance, but has not moved into pumping them up or pushing a narrative like we see due east at Colorado. While it’s nice to be noticed, and nicer still to be feared, hype is not necessary to win. As a matter of fact, hype makes winning more difficult. It also inflates expectations to an unrealistic level.

When there is no hype, the expectations are what they are and typically remain unchanged. When you look around the country, there are plenty of teams that are operating against lofty or even unfair expectations due to that factor. Alabama doesn’t have Nick Saban, but the expectations are still set for the Alabama we’ve come to know over time. Oregon seems to keep moving the goalposts on themselves. After Georgia saw all 11 defensive starters get drafted, the expectation was the championship was theirs to lose. There are even a couple of teams that are basing their actual expectations on the hype aspect, which is a recipe for trouble.

Everyone in Salt Lake City and abroad rooting for the Utes should all enjoy this dynamic as one typically leads to the other. When teams are respected as a top 10 team at this juncture in the calendar, hype usually follows. Yet, for the most part, we aren’t hearing about where Rising ranks as an NFL draft prospect, what receiver will have 1,000 yards this year, or the damage Utah is going to do to the field once the season starts. All of which could prove to be true, but we aren’t hearing it. That’s the difference in where Utah is right now and where they don’t want to be. Kyle Whittingham’s team won’t be the Belle of the Ball before arriving. They want to be the one everyone isn’t paying attention to until it’s too late.

What separates Utah from other programs feeding into hype is that it doesn’t need to be more than they are. Some teams will have to be special to win games against teams viewed to be more consistently established. Utah just needs to be themselves. If health is not a massive concern, the season’s success should simply come down to whether they execute or not.

Utah opens the 2024 season at home against Southern Utah on Thursday, August 29.

Jason Jones