Utes, Buffs prepare for on-field transition

The only place that life in the Pacific-12 Conference has not begun for Utah and Colorado is on the football field. Though the Utes and Buffs didn’t formally join the league until last month, and they don’t play their first conference opponents until Sept. 10, both programs are fully immersed in their new competition.

“I saw more of Utah and Colorado recruiting in California than I have since I’ve been at Oregon State,” Beavers coach Mike Riley said.

Colorado, in particular, has a legacy of winning with recruits from California. Bill McCartney’s 1990 national championship team included stars from Southern California such as the Buffs’ current offensive coordinator, former All-America tailback Eric Bieniemy.

“Seven coaches on our staff have a piece of California,” Colorado coach Jon Embree said. “We’re treating it like it’s in-state.”

The recruiting competition may have begun but that game won’t finish until February. The games on the field are looming. The Buffs and the Utes have all they can handle trying to get ready for all those new opponents.

“There’s a lot of things on our plate right now,” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said. “Unknowns, lack of familiarity, not only with the teams we’re going to play but the venues we’re going to play in. If you’ve been playing in a conference for several years, by the time your players are juniors and seniors, they’ve been to places a couple of times. You know the hotel you’re going to be staying at. Everything becomes semi-routine. It’s not that big a deal. It’s just a change, a departure from what we’ve been doing the last few years.”

Coaches are nothing if not creatures of habit, which is why new venues can loom as an issue on the same checklists as new offenses to defend. Whittingham said, as all coaches who join new leagues say, that their new league brethren have to learn about Utah, too. They have one new opponent. The Utes have nine.

Embree, hired shortly after last season to replace Dan Hawkins, believes he isn’t going into the league blindly. For one thing, Embree has seen his son Taylor, a UCLA senior flanker, play for three seasons.

“I’ve had an opportunity to watch some of the teams, not necessarily from a coaching standpoint but I do have a degree of familiarity,” Embree said. “What I’ve done this year, I’ve tried to pick a few teams and really study them and get a feel for the league and the different styles. There’s a lot of diversity on both sides of the football. So what I did this offseason is I went out and I watched a few of the teams and watched every game in sequence, to get a feel for how teams improved as the season went on, and other teams faded.”

Not only do the Buffs play, yes, 13 straight -- they open at Hawaii -- but they will play 10 Pac-12 opponents. The Sept. 10 game against California, the back end of a home-and-home that began last season, will be a nonconference game as far as the league is concerned.

“Only if we win does it count in the league standings,” Embree said, laughing.

Embree said that his lack of track record may blunt his team’s disadvantage.

“It’s not like we’re coming with a certain style or brand that they already know about,” said Embree, who has been an NFL assistant for the last several years. “With our schedule, going 13 straight, we need all the advantages we can get. At least we don’t play the Packers.”

On the other hand, as a new coach, Embree believes he will learn more in Honolulu on Sept. 3 than he has since Colorado hired him.

“Until we get into a game situation,” Embree said. “I really won’t completely know everything about our team. I watched five games last year just to get a feel for what their personality was. I saw a team that was very emotional. We were like teenagers, all over the map. We blew a game, up by 35 (Kansas). Cal beat us a million to nothing (52-7). In that game, I saw a team that didn’t finish, didn’t compete.”

Utah landed in the sweet spot of South-North schedule rotation. The Utes play neither Oregon nor Stanford. Consider it a welcoming gift from the Pac-12 office.

“If you base it off last year it certainly was,” Whittingham said. “Every year is its own entity, a different set of circumstances. Players graduate. A lot of change takes place. You can’t base everything off last year. But if you’re looking just at what did transpire last year, that’s the way you’d want to structure your schedule.”

Utah should have an easier time of it. The Utes went 10-3 last year and return seven starters on offense, including junior quarterback Jordan Wynn. The Buffs went 5-7, swapped out their coaches and may start as many as four true freshmen. Let the transitions begin.