The Times’ college football countdown: No. 23 Utah

The offensive coordinator is 25 and the first-year cornerbacks coach is a trial lawyer who, in his new job, can’t let the defense rest.

That hasn’t stopped us from thinking Utah, after its inaugural gantlet run through the Pac-12 Conference, is ready again to be ranked.

Brian Johnson, the quarterback who led Utah to an undefeated 2008 season capped by a stunning win over Alabama in the Sugar Bowl, was hired a few weeks shy of his 24th birthday. He takes over for Norm Chow, the new Hawaii head coach, who was blowing out 40 candles when Johnson was born.

“Brian is a special kid,” Utah Coach Kyle Whittingham said. “He’s been ahead of the curve.”

Sure, but is he old enough to qualify for a home loan?

There remain a few players on the roster from the 2008 team Johnson led, but Whittingham thinks his new play-caller has the maturity to bridge the Nickelodeon gap. “You have to make sure you keep that separation between coach and player,” Whittingham said.

In joining the Pac-12, Utah knew it wasn’t going 13-0 again. The move from the Mountain West yielded an 8-5 crop that ended with a Sun Bowl win over Georgia Tech. “It was about what we expected,” Whittingham said of the season.

Utah, in its first Pac-12 game, played USC tough at the Coliseum but started 0-4 in league play before beating Oregon State on Oct. 29.

Remarkably, with USC ineligible, Utah would have won the Pac-12 South title had it defeated lowly Colorado on Nov. 25 in Salt Lake City. A shocking three-point loss put UCLA in the title game against Oregon.

Utah isn’t going away. This is a bedrock program built by Urban Meyer and sustained by Whittingham. The Utes return quarterback Jordan Wynn and workhorse tailback John White, who rushed for a school-record 1,519 yards.

The defense, led by senior lineman Star Lotulelei, might be the Pac-12’s best. Lotulelei could have opted for the NFL but said, “I didn’t feel like I was ready to take that next step.”

The corners will be well-versed — well, at least in the writ of habeas corpus. Their new coach is Sharrieff Shah, a former Utah safety who joins the staff after spending the last decade as a lawyer. Shah boasts three degrees from Utah and has followed the program closely as a sideline radio analyst.

Shah took the job after declining previous coaching overtures from Whittingham. “If you don’t take it this time I’m not going to ask you again,” Shah was told.

Utah opens Pac-12 play this season at Arizona State on Sept. 22 and then prepares for USC’s Thursday night arrival on Oct. 4.

The days of misty-colored dream seasons ending with Sugar Bowl wins over Alabama have transitioned into the harsh reality of week-to-week combat in a big boy league. Utah accepted that challenge and, over time, is probably up to it.

The countdown so far: The countdown so far: 25. Notre Dame; 24. Texas Christian; 23. Utah.