LOS ANGELES — The Utes started playing football in 1892, and never in their storied history have they opened up a season against an SEC team, let alone on the road.
Now that’s all about to change in a month, because Utah will be making its’ first trip down to the Swamp to take on Florida since the 1970s. It’s arguably one of the biggest matchups in week one. And it’s definitely going to have College football fanatics glued to their seats.
The reigning Pac-12 Champs will represent the league against the almighty SEC. There’s no denying it’s going to be a lot at stake for Coach Kyle Whittingham’s squad. If the Utes are victorious, they’ll catapult into the top-five, and control their own destiny the rest of the season. However, if Utah loses to the Gators, the entire nation will count the conference out of the Playoffs after the first Saturday of September.
That’s why Whittingham isn’t downplaying the magnitude of this clash. After all, it checks all the boxes, including national appeal, strength of schedule, recruiting and conference bragging rights.
“Every game obviously is important,” Whittingham said. “But when you have a chance to go down to SEC country, play a storied program like Florida with their history, and tradition, in a place like the Swamp, that’s a challenge for our guys.”
Over the past 20 years, Pac-12 teams haven’t fared well on the road in season-openers against the SEC. California got mauled at Neyland Stadium in 2006, and Washington State was annihilated at Jordan-Hare Stadium that same day. It’s such a rare occasion of epic proportions for the Pac-12’s national credibility. Regardless of the matter, the clash presents a once in a lifetime opportunity for Whittingham and his players.
The late great Bobby Bowden used to take his early Florida State teams everywhere in the country to play foes. In return the Seminoles earned respect and notoriety. That’s a similar approach Whittingham hopes to accomplish.
“It’s important for the Pac-12 to make noise on the national scene whenever we get opportunities like that,” he said. “There’s several other teams in the league that are going to have similar opportunities.”
Oregon will be the other Pac-12 school in action against the SEC in week one, and it’s against the reigning National Champs. The fact that the Pac-12 has been left out of the Playoffs for the past five seasons, means the two teams must have a great showing. And Whittingham doesn’t want to disappoint when all eyes will be on his team.
“If you want to gain respect, gain national attention, you got to come out and win some of those games,” the 62-year old coach said. “Hopefully we can go down there and play like we’re capable of.”
Utah was last seen in action taking Ohio State down to the wire in the Rose Bowl. So Whittingham feels his boys have what it takes to hang with the nation’s elite. It helps that the Gators will be breaking in a new coach in Billy Napier. Although Napier won 40 games over the past four seasons with Louisiana, rebuilding Florida will be more challenging.
Last Friday Utah was picked by Pac-12 media members as the favorite to win it all again. It didn’t bother Whittingham because the Utes have grown accustomed to being the hunted. Talent disparity shouldn’t be an issue either, especially since Whittingham has a track history for doing more with less.
The one aspect Whittingham feels he doesn’t have to worry about is getting his players motivated for the opener. Which is why he’s anticipating an intense fall camp leading up to the contest. The buzz is through the roof for the Utes’ season, but the players feel they aren’t getting the respect they deserve, and will enter September with a chip on their shoulder. And that’s exactly how Whittingham likes it.
“We’ve seen it starting in January that these guys have been working their tails off getting ready for this game.”