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Utah football is thriving in a power conference by staying true to itself

The Utes host undefeated Washington on Saturday (3:30 p.m. ET, FS1), and it’ll be the Pac-12 party they’ve envisioned for years.

USC v Utah Photo by Gene Sweeney Jr/Getty Images

It’s been a little more than six years since Utah accepted an offer to leave the Mountain West for the Pac-12 during the realignment gold rush that made for hasty alliances all around the country.

On Saturday, the No. 17 Utes will host College GameDay for the second time in two years, and then they’ll play No. 4 Washington as a Pac-12 South co-leader and with Playoff dreams still intact.

The Utes won 10 games last year and are tracking toward double digits again at 7-1. They’re tied with fellow league newcomer Colorado atop the South. They’re getting more national exposure than they used to, and they’re making more money, too. Whatever Utah bargained for in joining the Pac-12, it’s getting it.

“We wanted what’s happening right now,” Utah athletic director Chris Hill told SB Nation.

The good times have rolled beyond football. The men’s basketball team finished last year with its highest ranking since 1999. Utah’s won league titles in baseball and women’s gymnastics. Notoriety improves everything.

“College football’s all about recruiting,” head coach Kyle Whittingham said. “And the more you can get your brand out there and the more exposure that you have and the more that you can get your program in front of recruits, the better.”

That recruiting’s been fine, but it doesn’t explain Utah’s success.

Utah’s first season in the Pac-12 was 2011. In 2010, it signed the country’s No. 43 recruiting class. Then, in order after that: 40, 37, 47, 47, 67, 45, and 37 last year.

Utah doesn’t recruit like a national power but has seen its roster make-up change dramatically.

“I’m gonna tell you that the vast majority of our roster right now would not be in our program had we not been in the Pac-12,” Whittingham says. “We would not have been able to get those guys.”

Utah’s classes have ranked between the middle and bottom of the league, so they’ve had to find an edge elsewhere.

“We’ve been able to get in far more doors than we ever would’ve had we not been affiliated with the Pac-12, but the competition is stiffer, and so it’s a relative statement,” Whittingham says.

Even in that context, Utah’s got a difficult fight on its hands.

NCAA Football: Arizona State at Utah
Hunter Dimick and Kylie Fitts
Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

In the Pac-12 South, Utah’s surrounded by more talented teams. USC and UCLA are among the select group of programs that sign more four- and five-star prospects than two- and three-stars, a group that annually includes the national champion. But Utah beat USC in a thriller and outgunned UCLA, and the Utes are almost certain to finish ahead of both.

“It’s a challenge to recruit, and recruit against some people that have been already in that recruiting pool, if you will,” Hill says. “But the one thing we have noticed, and it’s been very, very clear: our depth is so much better, and the athletes we get are continuing to start to match up with the rest of the league.”

“Our assistant coaches have done a great job of identifying and targeting recruits that are a little bit under the radar, and our assistant coaches have done a great job of projecting talent,” Whittingham says. “Oftentimes, we don’t get the four- and five-star guys as regularly as other programs, but we feel that we do a great job of identifying potential and developing that potential when they get in our program.”

That’s different than a place like Navy, which wins by having a distinct system that works largely independent of who’s running it.

Utah doesn’t try to be drastically different than the rest of the Pac-12, but it’s found players who can compete against it.

Running back Joe Williams, who set a school rushing record last week a month after retiring from football, was almost completely unheralded as a recruit and got to Salt Lake City by way of junior college. Leading tackler Chase Hansen was a touted recruit but not a can’t-miss type, basically, the sort of talent who’s led Utah’s classes over the last few years.

The Utes have embraced what’s different about their new home.

“Us getting in the Pac-12, things have changed as far as our strength approach,” strength coach Doug Elisaia told SB Nation last summer. “One is when we’re in the Mountain West, we kind of grinded and were real strong and focused on strength, and getting in the Pac-12, with all the no-huddle offenses, we’ve had to change things to more kind of going into base strength. But we’ve kind of focused muscle endurance with all the no-huddle work that everybody does in the Pac-12.”

“It’s dramatically different,” Whittingham says. “The bar was raised in every area. Now my weekly routine is not that much different as far as how we practice, how we go about our business. But the level of competition, the facilities, the budgets, the exposure, it’s all been ramped up. In a lot of ways, it’s like I got a new job when we joined the Pac-12.”

College football has widely shifted toward spread offenses, so the sort of banging around Utah did in the Mountain West might’ve died off anyway.

But the Utes still win with a more defense- and run-oriented approach than most of their competition. The Utes led the Pac-12 in yards allowed per play in 2011 and have finished in the top four two other times (never below seventh), led by a constant stream of powerful defensive linemen. Their ground game isn’t especially explosive, but they’re on pace to finish in the league’s top two in rushing attempts per game for the third year in a row.

Special teams continues the fundamentals-first trend, as the Utes have a chance to win the Ray Guy Award for the nation’s best punter for the third year in a row. Sophomore Mitch Wishnowsky is No. 2 in the country in yards per punt, and fellow Aussie Tom Hackett (an awesome interviewee) was a two-time winner.

It’s just a solid program that prepares its players to get the basics right on the field.

“There’s teams in our league that will always get the pick of the litter because of their location and their history. But the depth has been big,” Hill says.

So, Utah’s here. Now, the focus is on growing.

Utah went undefeated in 2004 and in 2008 but didn’t get to play for a national title either year. That’d never happen in the Pac-12, and while Utah’s an underdog Saturday and thus a Playoff long shot, the Utes now control their own destiny every year.

“Now we’re starting a hundred-meter dash equal to everybody, where before, we were starting a hundred-meter dash and we actually had 10 extra meters to run,” Hill says.

The Utes stand to benefit in a lot of ways from selling the Pac-12, and what comes next is about entrenching themselves further, and not just athletically.

“I do word association sometimes when I speak, and I say, ‘Tell me the first college you think of after I say this college. And I say, ‘Yale,’ and they quickly say, ‘Harvard.’ Stimulus response. Why? Because they played their football games forever. They’re in the same league. Tufts is a great institution, but you’d never say ‘Tufts’ when you say ‘Yale,’ you know?” Hill says. “We wanna be able to say Utah-Cal, Utah-Stanford, UCLA, as opposed to other things.”

This weekend’s a party in Salt Lake City. The Utes have an uphill battle against a team Whittingham says hasn’t “shown any sign of weakness.” Utah could lose and still win the South, and even if it doesn’t, the last two seasons have felt a lot like a Pac-12 arrival.

“We now have our sea legs,” Hill says. “We’re in the league. We’re people in the league that are respected, and now we’re in a position where we feel like we can compete for championships, and we also feel where people come here, to play us, they don’t think anything other than, ‘I’m not sure I wanna go to Utah to play.’”