SOUTH BEND IN - NOVEMBER 13: Sealver Siliga #98 and Star Lotulelei #92 of the Utah Utes stop Jonas Gray #25 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at Notre Dame Stadium on November 13 2010 in South Bend Indiana. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Kyle Whittingham noted during his Utah Utes' inaugural Pacific 12 Conference campaign that the size, speed and strength of the league proved overwhelming. Sure, Utah had a track record for upending Pac-12 opponents during its Mountain West days -- including Arizona twice in 2004 and 2005 -- but facing the conference on a weekly basis exhausted the Utes.
UU dropped its first four Pac-12 games, including three straight to Washington, Arizona State and Cal, all by double digits. The 2011 season was a baptism by fire, but Utah acclimated on the fly. The Utes recovered to roll off four straight league wins and get into the divisional title hunt before suffering a perplexing, season ending loss to Colorado. The Utes recovered with an impressive defeat of Georgia Tech in the Sun Bowl to remove some of the bad taste that CU loss could have left UU with in the offseason.
Building off the season's second half, Whittingham has a formula for how his Utes can return to the 10-game winning ways they enjoyed in the MWC. It also doesn't hurt that Utah has two of the conference's best players at their respective positions in running back John White and defensive tackle Star Lotulelei.
White rushed for 1519 yards and scored 15 touchdowns last season, much of his production coming without No. 1 quarterback Jordan Wynn present to draw away some of the defensive attention. Wynn had surgery on an injured shoulder, leaving the offense in the hands of Jon Hays. Hays' numbers were thoroughly mediocre: a 56 percent completion rate, 12 touchdowns and eight interceptions, and 1459 yards.
While not eye-popping, Wynn had flashes that exhibited more explosiveness when he was manning the offense in 2010. Working with new offensive coordinator and former Ute quarterback Brian Johnson should aid Wynn's development, as well. Johnson was a proven game manager in his time at UU, calling plays at the line to keep Alabama off-balance in the Utes' 2009 Sugar Bowl defeat of Alabama.
Should Johnson integrate the same principles into this season's Ute offense, Utah suddenly has a fast moving offense that fits in the Pac-12, and complements what was the conference's best defense last season.
The Ute front seven is aggressive, and plays like how I imagine Whittingham coaches. Lotulelei simply cannot be blocked by one lineman, and that becomes part of the Ute strategy. He draws blockers, awaits running backs trying to cut up the middle, and the talented defensive ends and linebackers snap the trap shut either on blitzes or awaiting rushes to the outside.
UU ranked No. 19 in points allowed last season, an admirable accomplishment for a team in this conference...even if it did miss Stanford and Oregon, which the Utes do once again this season.
They do play UA of course, both members of the South. The Utes spoiled 2011 Homecoming, blocking two UA punt attempts and snatching an interception in the red zone. Utah has won each of the three recent match-ups against the Wildcats, including the last in Rice Eccles Stadium (2005).