- Andrea Adelson, ESPN Staff Writer
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What does a team need to do to get a little bit of national recognition?
Apparently more than Utah.
Forgive Utes fans if they feel a little forgotten right now. Their team is the least heralded of the undefeated squads remaining, ranked lower than a one-loss Alabama team. No. 8 Utah keeps winning, but has taken a backseat to No. 3 Boise State and No. 4 TCU, the more heralded of the non-automatic qualifying teams.
Under the radar is one thing. This is more like off the radar.
But Utah players and coaches have hardly noticed. Coach Kyle Whittingham has made sure his team ignores the rankings and stays focused on what comes ahead.
The truth is, the games ahead will go a long way toward determining whether Utah grabs a piece of the spotlight. One of the big knocks against Utah is the fact that it has played a relatively weak schedule so far. Its computer average is at No. 10, in large part because it has beaten New Mexico, UNLV, San Jose State, Wyoming and Colorado State. None of those teams have more than two wins.
The tough stretch of the season starts Saturday at Air Force. Following that, Utah hosts No. 4 TCU, then goes to Notre Dame, San Diego State and closes against BYU. Though quarterback Jordan Wynn said the team is not worried about its position in the polls, he said every game is viewed as a statement game.
“You want to win and you want to win big, take each game one at a time and do what we can to make it a statement game,” Wynn said. “You can’t have a letdown. That’s been a mantra of the team.”
All Utah has done is win big in nearly all of its games. The Utes are winning by an average of 35 points. They are one of four teams that ranks in the Top 10 in scoring offense (47.7 ppg) and scoring defense (12.9 ppg). But an incredible double-standard exists.
For example, after Utah beat Iowa State 68-27, the Utes dropped one spot in the AP and coaches’ poll to No. 11. But the following week, Oklahoma beat Iowa State 52-0 moved up three spots up to No. 3 in the human polls, and debuted at No. 1 in the BCS standings.
The poll positions have baffled Utah fans, who have seen their team post 50-plus points in four of the first seven games to equal the 2004 season total.
The schedule might not be so impressive now, but Utah did beat Pittsburgh to open the season. The Panthers are atop the Big East right now. Iowa State just beat Texas.
For their part, Whittingham and his players believe they are playing their best football going into the toughest stretch of the season. Wynn rebounded nicely after a three-interception performance against Wyoming, throwing for three touchdowns and 321 yards in a 59-6 win over Colorado State last week.
Meanwhile, the defense is ranked in the top 10 in the nation in total defense, rushing defense, pass defense, third-down defense and opponent first downs along with scoring defense. Their special teams behind Shaky Smithson has been one of the best in the country. And Utah finally improved its turnover margin against the Rams.
The series with Air Force has traditionally been close. In the 26-game history, the total point differential is just 19 points. Though the Falcons have lost two straight, Utah expects a big fight. Nobody is going to look ahead to TCU. Nobody is going to think about the polls, either.
“We’re going to have the same mentality week in and week out whether we’re first in the country, eighth in the country or 108,” Whittingham said. “You’re not going to approach game week any differently based on where you’re ranked. You have to go out there and perform your best and don’t be overly concerned with things you can’t control directly.”
2hMax Olson and Jake Trotter