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Media quickly establishing Utah as USC's biggest challenge in Pac-12 South

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With the 2012 football season a bit over a month away from beginning, the preseason publications are starting to churn out their previews for the upcoming year. While they really don't mean much in the entire scheme of things (a great deal of 'em are often wrong), it's nice to see what the consensus is involving Utah football.

Last season, the Utes were predicted to mostly finish around third in the Pac-12 South. Some, like TSN & the Rogers Poll, actually had Utah winning the Pac-12 South. But most publications settled in on third place, which is pretty much where they finished - as the Utes were tied for third place at the end of the '11 season.

Not bad when you consider no one really knew how Utah would land in their new BCS conference.

This season, though, while no one has yet to predict a first-place finish, they are more generous overall. The Utes' average predicted place this year is second behind USC. The only other team expected to rival Utah for that spot is UCLA, as they're picked to finish second by three publications.

Even so, it's clear Utah is the expected team to battle the Trojans for the divisional crown. Obviously the term battle is used a bit liberally here because it's entirely possible the Utes finish second and far from challenging USC for a spot in the Pac-12 Championship Game.

Still, it's nice to know the media is high on Utah, who has, let's be honest, still not really proven much in conference. The media expects that to change this year and frankly, so do I. But the numbers suggest where expectations may fall this year and that's no worse than second.

Those are pretty lofty expectations all things considered, but with so much of the Pac-12 in transition (three of the teams have new coaches and the fourth is still trying to rebuild), it's not hard to see why Utah & USC are the ones often batted around as the two most successful teams this year. After all, Kyle Whittingham is the longest tenured coach in the division and Kiffin is second. There's consistency there.

Here's a breakdown of the Utes' preseason conference placements:

Publication Lindy Phil Steele Athlon Blue Ribbon McIllece Sports Arena Fanatic Football Outsiders USA Today USA Today Magazine
Rank 2 3 2 2 3 3 2 2 2

As you can see, a lot of second place finishes predicted. Not bad and pretty much what I expected. In fact, I think, when the conference meets next week for its media day, the members of the Pac-12 media will probably have the Utes pegged as second too. We'll see, but that seems to be where the consensus is forming.

So, what does a second place finish net Utah? That's the tricky part. Since there are divisions now, where the Utes are battling Pac-12 North teams for bowl games, and the fact no bowl, outside the Rose, is beholden entirely to standing, Utah can play anywhere from the Alamo Bowl on down the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl. In fact, the latter is where Athlon has the Utes going, even though they pick the Utes second in the South. Not exactly a prestigious bowl game and I'm guessing if that's our December destination, fans are going to be extremely disappointed.

While Athlon does predict a second place finish for Utah, in reality, they're not expecting anything from the Utes this year. Their second place finish is solely by default and they've already anticipated another losing conference record and a rather average 7-5 season. What Athlon is saying is that this season will pretty much mirror last season.

The only difference, of course, is that they won't ride their mediocre record to a better bowl. 7-5 and 4-5 in the Pac-12 will give them a spot in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl and I'm inclined to agree with that. Which means, if Utah wants a better destination this holiday season than a third-rate bowl game no one will watch or care about, they've got to really produce a team worthy of a second-place finish - not just one that somehow falls into that position by default.

That will require a winning conference record, at least eight regular season wins and hopefully a better record against Northern teams so that, when the bowl selections come out, the Utes have a leg-up on those programs that most likely could finish with identical records - both in conference and overall.

Had Utah defeated Cal or Washington in '11 and they're probably playing in the Holiday Bowl, not the Sun. This year, with more bowl eligible teams (USC is now allowed postseason play and Athlon expects nine bowl eligible teams), it's going to be harder to land a marquee bowl game. It's why both Steele (he has Utah going to the Vegas Bowl to play Boise State) and Athlon are cautious on Utah's postseason destinations, even though their predicted spot is either better, or the same, as their actual finish last year.

If the Utes finish 7-5 and 4-5 in Pac-12 play this season, don't bet on them landing in the Sun Bowl again. It will be Vegas, the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl or, believe it or not, a trip to New Mexico.

This is why it's so important they actually do have a good and consistent season. It's why, really, I won't be satisfied with a second place finish if the record is identical to last year. It's why, in the end, Utah can't blow it against Colorado - or any other losing Pac-12 program.

If they do, don't expect a cushioned landing in the Sun Bowl again.