SALT LAKE CITY —

The late model, just-off-the-assembly-line Ute football team practiced for the first time Thursday, and it's not hard to imagine how that went: the way it always does, only more of it.

More attitude. More enthusiasm. And more talk about focusing.

You want focus, the Utes look like they're cramming for finals — which in a way they are. If the talk is true, they're looking no further ahead than their Sept. 2 opener against Pittsburgh. Fall camp is always a time for short-term plans and getting in the right frame of mind. But this year is in a class by itself. Coach Kyle Whittingham is allegedly fitting everyone with blinders. They'd be smart not to read the papers or the Internet, watch TV or listen to the radio.

He should ban 'em all.

What these guys need is about five months of one-track thinking.

Keeping the prize in mind won't be easy. The Utes are just one year away from moving to the Pac-10 — the biggest move in program history. But there's still this year and they have a lot to lose in their final season in the Mountain West.

Like, for instance, their sense of swagger.

Nothing says mistake like entering a new conference with a 6-6 record.

Don't laugh. It's possible. This is the last year for the Utes in the Mountain West Conference and EVERYONE will be aiming for them.

Wyoming? The Cowboys will be seeding the clouds in hopes of a blizzard for their October game at War Memorial Stadium. New Mexico has killed the Utes' dreams before, like in 1994 when Utah was 8-0 and nationally ranked, only to lose at Albuquerque. Wouldn't it be nervy to do that again?

As much as Utah's move means to the program, it means plenty to those being left behind, too — and not in a good way. Opponents this year are sure to be unimpressed, irritable and slightly resentful. Did you hear anyone this summer praising the Utes, saying how richly they deserve to be in the Pac-10? Did anyone say out loud they wish they were Utah?

It's not going to be a warm and nostalgic farewell tour.

"Everyone," said receiver Jereme Brooks, "will be coming after us this year."

Pittsburgh, first on the schedule, is the overwhelming pick to win the Big East; Utah isn't even projected first in the Mountain West. Surely the Panthers have a score to settle from that 35-7 Fiesta Bowl execution. Later comes Iowa State, a Big 12 opponent on the road. The Cyclones won a bowl game last year, only the third in their history. So that game isn't likely to be a garden party.

Notre Dame may not be great this year, but when you're dealing with ghosts of seasons past, South Bend has more than anyone.

TCU and BYU are torture wrapped in a ribbon. Even under prime conditions, the Utes must worry about them.

Toss in a game in which the Utes aren't their sharpest — say Air Force — and they could be entering the Pac-10 with a .500 record.

"We better be focused, because the degree of difficulty right out of the gates is extreme," Whittingham said.

Thus, the Utes moved directly into their one-game-at-a-time mode. They weren't discussing TCU, BYU or even Notre Dame; they were talking about that day's practice.

"I try not to look at (this year) as being different," said quarterback Jordan Wynn. "I feel everyone gave us their best shot last year, too. But there's a lot of excitement around the program, and we're just trying to stay focused and leave this conference with big smiles on our faces."

Pac-10 next year? Don't even bring it up.

As everyone knows, when embarking on an epic adventure, you first want to tidy up at home.

e-mail: rock@desnews.com