Bleeding Red: Newly-ranked Utes ready to take Pac-12 South

Non-conference games are over and done
And every game played Utah has won
Conference games are about to begin
The Pac-12 South is Utah’s to win

COLUMN — After a victory at San Jose State, the Utes are 3-0 and are ready to take on the Pac-12. Utah is one of only four undefeated Pac-12 teams heading into conference play. In fact, Utah is one of only three Pac-12 teams currently ranked, checking in at No. 23 in the Coaches Poll and No. 24 in the AP Poll.

utes logoGoing into this season, UCLA and USC were favorites to win the Pac-12 South. However, early in the season it is Utah and Arizona State who are leading the way with 3-0 records.

Now it is early in the season with a lot of football to play. This time last year, the Utes were also 3-0 and eventually took control of the South until falling apart late in the season and yet again missing out on the Pac-12 Championship game. I don’t like to remember that, but it is a good example of there still being a lot of football left to play. Nevertheless, I am stoked that Utah is in such a good position early in the season and are overall playing pretty well.

Despite the fact that the names and faces have changed many times since the 2008 13-0 season, it amazes me that the Utes continue to be a very similar team every year. Amazing defense, solid special teams, shaky offense, inconsistent quarterback play, and more strong running backs than you can shake a stick at. This year is pretty much the same old song. This type of team has proven that there is never a dull moment watching Utah football. Whether it be making a run at a Pac-12 championship or committing six turnovers and somehow winning the game anyway, the Utes always know how to suck me in. They are probably going to make me lose all my hair before I’m 30, but the pure entertainment will be worth it.

So if Utah is more or less the same old team, does that mean that this season is going to be the same story — One where the Utes will do well but ultimately come short of anything great and make a third consecutive trip to the Las Vegas Bowl? Should we even bother watching the rest of the season?

Despite this team having a similar look to years past, I say there are many things to be optimistic about that could end with Utah’s first ever trip to the Pac-12 Championship Game.

“It’s on to Pac-12 play the rest of the way now,” Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham said. “It starts with USC this Friday, which is a big game — they’re all big games in the Pac-12 Conference. We want to try and challenge for that Pac-12 South title and this is the first step in that regard.”

In honor of the Utes 3-0 start here are 3 reasons why Utah will reach the Pac-12 Championship Game this season:

1. Have we Mentioned the Defense Yet?

The old cliché that defense wins championships is true … and the Utes have a dominant defense.

In the NFL, two of the last three Super Bowls have showcased the best offense against the best defense. In both cases, the defense outplayed the offense and was the main reason that team won the Super Bowl. Last year, the Broncos tragically beat my beloved Panthers with a ridiculously good defense and an offense that ran on fumes most of the season and wasn’t all that impressive in the Super Bowl.

I won’t bore you by repeating what has been said in recent Bleeding Red columns on Utah’s dominant defense; suffice it to say that the defense is going to be pivotal to the Utes reaching the Pac-12 Championship Game. To be clear, I’m not saying Utah’s defense is as good as the 2015 Broncos, but I do believe that they are good enough to get the Utes to the Pac-12 Championship Game despite how good the offense pans out to be.

2. Soft South

So far, the Pac-12 South hasn’t looked as challenging as it has in years past.

Despite starting 3-0, Arizona State is lucky that they aren’t 2-1 after a pitiful performance against Texas-San Antonio this past weekend. It is unlikely they will be in the hunt at the end of the season, so let’s move on.

UCLA already has one loss (albeit a non-conference game) and USC already has two (including a key conference loss) within the first three games. I suspect that both UCLA and USC will pick up the pace after a somewhat slow start to the season. But similar to Arizona State, so far they have shown that as long as Utah’s defense can stay strong and the offense can minimize mistakes, the Utes should be able to beat both of them and stay ahead in the standings as a result.

The bottom line is the best Pac-12 teams such as Stanford, Washington, and even Oregon, don’t play in the South. Even though Utah will have to play a couple of those teams before the season is over they don’t have to worry about beating them in the standings in order to make the championship game.

I’m not saying the Utes are going to run the table in conference play, but they don’t have to, the South is still theirs for the taking.

3. No Stanford on the Schedule

Stanford, with the dynamic Christian McCaffrey, is still the prohibitive favorite to win not only the Pac-12 North, but the Pac-12 Championship. Due to the rotating schedule, Utah won’t play Stanford in the regular season, and the two teams will play only if matched up in the Pac-12 Championship Game.

So far in 2016, the Utes may have the same generic storylines as the last few years, but I am confident that as conference play begins they will figure it out and improve enough to have more success than they have ever had since joining the Pac-12. As the Utes prepare to host USC this Friday, I can’t help but get excited for what is to come as the march toward the Pac-12 championship officially begins.

You definitely don’t want to miss this.

Today’s Bleeding Red sports column is guest-written by Josh Vance. The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of St. George News.

Email: sports@stgnews.com

Twitter: @oldschoolag

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2016, all rights reserved.

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