SALT LAKE CITY, Utah -- A new season may be right around the corner, but at Utah's football complex, reminders of last year await visitors at nearly every turn.
A "2009 Sugar Bowl Champions" banner hangs above the front entrance to the Smith Athletics Center. An enormous, framed panoramic photo from inside the Superdome that night hangs behind the desk in coach
Utah finished last season 13-0 and ranked second in the country by AP voters. But as the Utes begin their preseason camp Thursday, Whittingham wants his players to put their undefeated season and Sugar Bowl victory over Alabama behind them.
"I hear people say, 'Was last year a fluke?' No, last year was what it was -- a great season," said Whittingham. "Nothing we do this year will either validate or discredit what we did last year. Each year is its own separate entity, its own set of circumstances."
The Utes enter '09 carrying both the glamour and the burden that follow a national breakthrough. They are also the rare team that has been through this before. Utah is the only program in the country that has posted two undefeated seasons in the BCS era, having previously done so in 2004. (The Utes beat Pittsburgh in the Fiesta Bowl that year.)
"We went out there and made ourselves a national team," said linebacker
Whittingham marvels at how far the program has come since first arriving at Utah as an assistant in the mid-'90s.
"I was recruiting Southern California. I used to have to explain who we were, where we were located, what conference we were in," he said. "Now, people know who the University of Utah is. We're able to get into virtually any home in the country."
The last time Utah went undefeated, the encore wasn't pretty. Coach
"We went 7-5 and won a bowl game [in '05], which is not disaster but not where you'd like to be," said the fifth-year head coach. "Hopefully there's more continuity and carryover this time around."
There are several similarities between the '05 and '09 Utes. Once again, Utah has to replace a veteran quarterback, this time three-year starter and Sugar Bowl MVP
Utah should presumably reload more smoothly this time, however, because its talent level has risen along with its national profile.
"Their ability to recruit following that '04 season continues to pay dividends," said
Utah's defense, ranked 11th in the country last season, should continue to be its strength. Defensive ends
On the other side of the ball, running back
But one gigantic question hovers over the '09 Utes: Who will be the quarterback?
Three contenders battled throughout the spring with no clear favorite emerging. Junior
"Whichever one ends up being the guy, we'll obviously tailor the system to fit their strength," said Whittingham, "but who it will be is anyone's guess. Going into fall camp, there is no front-runner."
Whichever QB wins the job will be working with a receiving corps that lost its top three pass-catchers from '08, though Whittingham believes senior
Last but not least, one would be foolish to underestimate the void left by Sakoda, a consensus All-America and finalist for both the Lou Groza and Ray Guy awards last season. He made 22 of 24 field-goal attempts last season while averaging 42.1 yards per punt. Two different players will likely split his duties this year.
"Job No. 1 is identifying the quarterback," said Whittingham. "Job No. 2 is replacing Louie Sakoda."
Then there's the schedule. The Utes were one of three Top 25 teams from the Mountain West last season, along with 11-2 TCU and 10-3 BYU. Last year, Utah got the Horned Frogs and Cougars at home; this year, they must play both on the road, as well as Holiday Bowl champion Oregon. Utah also plays consecutive mid-October road games against Colorado State (a bowl team last year) and UNLV (a trendy surprise team in several publications).
With that in mind, it came as little surprise the Mountain West media picked Utah to finish third this year behind TCU and BYU. A 9-3-type season would hardly be disastrous for the Utes. However, Utah doesn't want to waste the considerable spotlight that's hovered over the program this offseason thanks to its unintended role in the latest BCS political controversy.
While Mountain West commissioner
"My philosophy is, you're probably never going to be able to talk your way into anything," said Whittingham. "You have to play your way into it. We took a big step in that direction in the '08 season. Now we have to continue to build on that as a conference through our play."
For Utah, the next step begins Sept. 3 against Utah State. If all goes well, Whittingham will have more decorations for the office by season's end.