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Despite a heartbreaking loss in the Rose Bowl, the University of Utah orchestrated one of their most successful seasons in program history in 2021. After an alarming and disappointing 1-2 start to the year, Utah would win nine of the next 11, including their very first Pac-12 Championship. 

While the Utes were finally able to reach the top of the mountain, that highly coveted trophy has opened a brand new chapter for the program. In addition to all the positive outcomes from proving themselves to be the best of a Power-Five Conference, the Utes now wear a massive target on their backs, and every team will be looking to dethrone the best from the west.

“The biggest difference with this team is the fact that we’re coming off a championship year…this team has the target on our back…now we’re the team to beat…there’s a sense of excitement for this season…people look at us on the schedule and they circle us,' Utah wide receiver Devaughn Vele said.

Just like Vele pointed out, the rest of the Pac-12 has noticed the writing on the wall and are already doing what they can to assemble a roster that can hang with the Utes. Several teams, including USC, look completely different than last year and do pose a legitimate threat to a Utah repeat. However, with a combination of experienced veterans, a talented class of college-ready freshmen and an understanding of what lies ahead, the Utes are preparing to face the noise.

“We need to step up to the plate...Good thing is we have a lot veteran guys that experienced that championship run last year and we’re the ones who are trying to usher in these freshman that are coming in to understand the culture that we have. It’s no longer, ‘Oh you come in and try to understand what you are doing.' No, we had freshman playing last year, so you guys need to come in with a mentality that you gotta step up when we call your name,” Vele explained.

“The difference between championship teams and ordinary teams are that championship teams take everything serious, even offseason work," Vele added. "That’s what we’ve been trying to implement. We can still have fun…but we need to be serious at the same time because of how tough this year is going to be.”

Even though the Utes did lose some notable upperclassmen, they returned a solid number of their most deadly weapons, added one of the best freshmen classes in program history and have the guys who are more than ready to step up and replace those who left. 

According to Vele, the Utes have structured a roster that is on pace to ruffle some feathers. With that in mind, there's no place better to start off on the right foot than in the swamplands of the SEC against Florida in week one.

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“I’m excited for this year. I’m excited for a lot of guys. We’ve got a lot of good talent this year…I have a really good feeling that we’re gonna be a really good team this year. We’re gonna surprise a lot of people, shock a lot of people, and no better way to do that than playing Florida in the first game. We can show people that Utah football is here to stay," Vele said.

While the Utes have opened as a favorite to win the Pac-12 again, it won't be an easy task. Just like Vele mentioned, every week will be a difficult challenge no matter the opponent. Having beaten every Pac-12 foe but one on their schedule last season, every conference team will be seeking revenge against the Utes. With that being said, Vele and the rest of the team aren't focused on last season. They're focused on 2022, the potential in-store and exceeding all expectations.

“We don’t need to replicate what we did last year, we need to exceed expectations. We need to exceed everything we’ve ever done…we need to be that 2022 football team that goes even further. That wins the PAC-12 Championship and then goes to the Rose Bowl or College Football Playoff," Vele said.

For more exclusive FanNation AllUtes content, including more from Vele, individuals can listen to the first episode of the Devaughn Vele podcast below.

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