No. 5 Utah plugging away despite newfound national attention
SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Kyle Whittingham has felt like the boy in the bubble since No. 5 Utah beat Oregon and shot up the polls. The Utes went from being a plucky team with a nasty defense to being considered one of the best in the country. They moved up five spots without playing last week as No. 14 Ole Miss, No. 19 Georgia, No. 15 Notre Dame and No. 20 UCLA all fell out of the Top 10.
Utah is now ranked No. 5 for just the third time in program history, with this being the earliest in the season. Now eyes from across the country have centered on Salt Lake City.
“It’s almost like living in a biosphere or a dome,” Whittingham said. “You’ve got people tapping on the glass and looking in at you. You’ve just got to block it out and go about your business and not let it affect you because it can be a distraction.”
That’s often easier said than done. Whittingham said it’s business as usual within the team, but there’s a lot more going on in the peripheral. ESPN will broadcast its weekly show “College GameDay” live from Salt Lake City on Saturday. There’s been more interest in the program from recruits recently. And the team that has thrived in the underdog role is suddenly the favorite.
“If you want to be a good team, you’ve got to handle the success you’ve had and the attention that’s being placed on your program,” Whittingham said. “That’s part of the deal. You’ve got to be able to block out the noise and continue to stay focused and continue to do the things that got you where you’re at.
“If you get in the mindset where you’re worrying about the external things and paying attention to all that, it’s going to be a distraction. So you cannot allow that.”
The coaching staff has been here before, though it’s a bit different. Utah finished the 2008 season ranked No. 2 after beating Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. It was ranked No. 7 heading into the game.
The Utes moved to No. 5 in 2004 after beating BYU in the regular season finale. They entered the game ranked No. 7 and finished the season No. 4 after beating Pittsburgh in the Fiesta Bowl.
Utah went undefeated in both seasons.
These Utes, however, still have eight regular season games to go, including hosting No. 23 Cal on Saturday.
“Similar feel? Sort of, but we’re still really early,” Whittingham said. “There’s so much football left that it’s really hard to make a comparison to either of those teams.
“But, there is somewhat of a similar feel with the national attention that we’ve gotten and that type of thing. There’s so much football left, it’s pointless to talk about anything besides Cal-Berkeley.”
The players followed their coach’s lead and insist no one is buying into the hype. With some prodding, linebacker Jared Norris admitted the attention is nice, but was eager to advance the conversation. Running back Devaontae Booker thinks the team can still play with a chip on their shoulder and said the leaders had a talk at the beginning of the off-week last week.
“I don’t think none of us are feeling ourself too much,” Booker said. “I kind of look at it as we’re still the underdog. It don’t matter if we’re No. 5 or whatever. We still have to go out there and win games if we want to be the best and win it all.
“We still have to reiterate to them because some guys still want to go down that bad trail. With a week break, we still had to tell them you can’t be a distraction to this team or do anything stupid to hurt this team. I think they got the message.”
The Utes are 6 ½ favorites against Cal on Saturday and are likely to remain on that side of the odds throughout the regular season as long as they keep winning. That’s no easy task with eight Pac-12 teams eagerly awaiting.
But Utah has positioned itself to have a special type of season like in 2004 and 2008.
“We thought this was a special team from the very beginning and I think everyone on this team has believed in that concept,” Norris said.