It's been five years since Utah started playing in the Pac-12, and it's safe to say that the honeymoon's well over.
The Utes beat back-to-back ranked opponents in Oregon and California at the start of conference play last season, and coach Kyle Whittingham thinks his team finally has caught up to the competition all over the field.
"I think that was manifest last year, particularly in the secondary, where I think we were second or third in interceptions," Whittingham said at Pac-12 media day in Hollywood on Thursday. "When we went into the league, there were mismatches most weeks in the secondary, and we don't feel that's the case anymore.
"We think we're equipped back there to compete, and I think we've caught up there."
Whittingham says Utah came into the conference with Pac-12-level lines on both sides of the ball, and still sees line play as his team's biggest strength. But improved play at the skill positions and on the perimeter defensively will be increasingly important this season. The Utes finished last season ranked 17th and tied with USC at the top of the conference's South Division, and will look to build on that success while sifting through three potential starting quarterbacks.
And after a half-decade in the conference, Utah has plans to keep moving up.
"I think since we've joined the Pac-12, we've been short two years. And the expectation wasn't, 'Let's go .500 and go to a Bowl game,' " senior offensive tackle J.J. Dielman said. "That's never been the expectation with [Whittingham]. That's never been the expectation for me with my team, and I don't think it ever will be."
Utah finished last season 10-3 with a win over Brigham Young in the Las Vegas Bowl. Its defense ranked second in the conference behind Washington in points allowed per game, and its rushing attack ranked fourth in the conference to lift an otherwise listless offense. The switch to the Pac-12 helped it get there, but it also has heightened expectations every year.
"The vast majority of our football team would not be on our football team had we not had the Pac-12 affiliation," Whittingham said. "That's just fact. No question about that."