Utah, Colorado officially arrive
Newest conference members highlight Pac-12 media day
LOS ANGELES - Utah coach Kyle Whittingham sat down in front of the Hollywood cameras with a comfortable smile. His polo shirt had the familiar feathered ``U'' on the chest and the brand-new Pac-12 logo on the shoulder.
After all those years of BCS-busting, the Utes are finally on the inside looking out - and Whittingham loves the view from his big league.
``We're ecstatic,'' Whittingham said Tuesday at the Pac-12's media day. ``It's something that's been talked about in Salt Lake City for a lot of years, even back when it was the Pac-8, going that far back. So it's something that's very exciting for the university, for the community, and big challenges lie ahead.''
The tradition-rich football programs at Utah and Colorado unofficially arrived in the Pac-12 at media day on the Fox studio lot in Century City. The coaches and star players for both mountain region-based schools appeared right at home in the cool Pacific vibe, chatting with the league's returning coaches and stars about the season ahead.
While Colorado is rebuilding, the Utes believe they can immediately contend for the South Division title, with Whittingham declaring the Pac-12 title game to be the ultimate goal. The media also thinks they have a good shot, picking Utah third in the South behind Southern California - which is banned from postseason play, including that league title game - and unpredictable Arizona State.
Utah left the Mountain West and Colorado split with the Big 12 to join the former Pac-10, which flirted with Texas and the possibility of a 16-team league during its major move to national prominence under new commissioner Larry Scott.
While the Longhorns stuck with the Big 12, the Buffaloes didn't hesitate to head for the West Coast.
``Hands down, this is a better fit for us,'' rookie Colorado coach Jon Embree said. ``With the fans we have out here, the alumni, the recruiting, it's no question. I've said from Day One that the Pac-10 was a better fit for Colorado.''
The schools moved for more exposure, better competition and the riches of a new media contract. Colorado was in a league with an automatic bid to the BCS, though the Buffaloes have fallen on hard times with five straight losing seasons, but Utah is relishing its move into the spotlight.
Whittingham already has noticed a large recruiting boost for the Utes, who immediately got several verbal commitments last June when Utah announced its move.
``Many of those players we would not have been able to get in on without a BCS conference affiliation,'' said Whittingham, who also credits the Utes' recruiting strides to new offensive coordinator Norm Chow, a Beehive State hero for his quarter-century in BYU's high-octane offense.
Whittingham also said 98 percent of Utah fans renewed their season tickets for this fall at Rice-Eccles Stadium.
``Throughout the country, you can go to any university and you'll be hard-pressed to find that type of support,'' Whittingham said. ``It's something that affects our university on a lot of different levels, not only athletically. It's been a big plus all the way around.''
The Buffaloes are rebuilding after coach Dan Hawkins was fired in early November. Embree realizes he's facing a rough debut in a 13-game schedule without a bye, but he hopes to make progress with returning quarterback Tyler Hansen.
``I think Tyler fits and belongs with the group of quarterbacks that you have in this conference,'' said Embree, whose son, Taylor, is a receiver at UCLA. ``The thing I'm excited about is our first game is on the road, because we need to address that issue immediately.''
Indeed, Colorado has lost 18 straight road games heading into its opener at Hawaii on Sept. 3.
While Embree retools his alma mater, the Utes already are established as an elite program. Utah has gone unbeaten twice during eight consecutive winning seasons, with Whittingham running coach Urban Meyer's defense in 2004 before taking charge of the program and leading Utah to another perfect year in 2007. The Utes have won the Fiesta and Sugar bowls in that span.
Utah drew a remarkable schedule in its debut season: The Utes don't have to play North powers Oregon and Stanford, which both made BCS bowls last season. Utah also will play the first Pac-12 game when the Utes visit USC at the historic Coliseum on Sept. 10.
``If you base it on last year, (missing Oregon and Stanford) is a big advantage,'' Whittingham said. ``Every year brings new challenges. Every year is its own entity - who are going to be the overachieving teams this year, and the teams that emerge ... so it remains to be seen, but certainly based on last year, if you had to structure your schedule, that's how you'd like to structure it.''