Utah Coach Kyle Whittingham is determined to show the Utes are ready to take… (Jim Urquhart / Associated…)
The Utah players know what some people think.
They know that winning a couple of Bowl Championship Series bowl games over the last six years hasn't convinced all the skeptics.
And simply joining the Pacific 12 Conference hasn't answered all the questions about a mid-major hoping to break into college football's upper echelon.
"Do they belong? Can they handle it?" senior offensive lineman John Cullen said. "We know we have to prove ourselves."
Their first test comes Saturday at the Coliseum against USC in a matchup that is generating more than the usual buzz around Salt Lake City and other parts of the country.
"From the way people write and talk about the game, it's really a big game for them because of all the smaller schools rooting for them," USC Coach Lane Kiffin said.
Utah players say they circled the date as soon as the schedule was announced, looking forward to the Pac-12's inaugural kickoff against one of the conference's marquee programs.
Their fans seem just as excited, gobbling up the school's 5,000-seat allotment well in advance. Administrators estimate that thousands more will find tickets through other sources and make the trip south.
"It's definitely a big deal," said Gordon Monson, a Salt Lake Tribune columnist who also hosts an afternoon radio show. "People feel the reputation of the program is at stake."
The Utes have been knocking on the BCS door ever since a young Urban Meyer arrived in 2003 and coached the program to a 22-2 record over two seasons.
His brief tenure culminated with a victory over Pittsburgh in the 2005 Fiesta Bowl. Kyle Whittingham took over and has continued to win, leading Utah past Alabama in the 2009 Sugar Bowl.
Still, fans in the shadow of the Wasatch Mountains are a little defensive about their team's amassing a good portion of its wins over Mountain West Conference opponents such as New Mexico, Wyoming and Nevada Las Vegas.
"That's always been the biggest knock," said Sean Reynolds, a blogger who runs the Block U website. "The last six or seven years, it's been 'Let's see them do that against BCS competition week in and week out.'"
A victory at the Coliseum would be a good start.
There is some history between these teams, their first meeting all the way back in 1915. USC holds a 6-3 all-time edge and also managed to swipe a prized recruit from the Utes in the 1960s — a junior college running back named O.J. Simpson.
"They obviously have a great tradition," current Utes quarterback Jordan Wynn said of the Trojans.
But check the Internet over the last few weeks and you will see that Utah fans have been posting photographs of a happier memory, their team beating the Trojans, 10-6, at the 2001 Las Vegas Bowl.
Kiffin was a fledgling tight ends coach for USC back then. He was working under offensive coordinator Norm Chow, who now returns to Los Angeles — along with former USC offensive line coach Tim Davis — wearing Utah red.
It won't be the first time Chow has squared off against his former team, not after spending the last few seasons at UCLA, but his presence always makes for an interesting subplot.
The Utes also have what Whittingham calls "a dark cloud" hanging over them — the death of defensive lineman Ron Tongaonevai's wife, Janelle, in a car accident shortly after last week's season opener against Montana State.
The incident rocked a tight-knit program, the coach watching carefully to see how his players respond.
"The game is not going to be canceled," he said. "The season marches on."
The team looked more than a little shaky in that 27-10 victory over Montana State. Wynn, returning from shoulder surgery, completed 15 of 23 passes for two touchdowns but only 101 yards.
"It's not a physical thing, but after surgery there is a period of time where you have to figure out that you can cut loose and throw the way you want to without worrying about pain," Whittingham said. "He's battling through that, psychologically."
So all sorts of emotions are feeding the hype around this matchup with the Trojans.
For fans, the desire for validation is mixed with uncertainty. "There's a lot of wondering right now about how good the team is," radio host Monson said.
The players want to rebound from a personal loss and show that, on the field, they can compete with favored USC for the Pac-12's South Division title.
Cullen, the offensive lineman, has yet another reason to believe there is "a little extra juice" for this weekend's game. He grew up in La Mirada.
"I was always a UCLA fan," he said. "I still hate USC."
Times staff writer Gary Klein contributed to this report.