Kragthorpe: Utes need to salvage their crumbling season
Travis Wilson floated above the field, riding on the shoulders of fans celebrating Utah's upset of Stanford at Rice-Eccles Stadium in October.
That scene was supposed to remain the enduring image of the Utes' season. Instead, it has become cruelly ironic, a symbol of a season that subsequently has crumbled for the Utes and their sophomore quarterback.
Wilson missed Saturday's loss to Oregon with an undisclosed injury. Utah coach Kyle Whittingham is expected to update Wilson's condition during a news conference this afternoon.
In any case, as they prepare for Saturday's visit to Washington State, the Utes (4-6) find themselves needing to win their last two games to achieve bowl eligibility. Bowl games may be devalued in this era of college football, with 70 of 123 teams participating. But that only means there's greater stigma in not qualifying, with a huge gulf between records of 5-7 and 6-6.
If the Utes can get to 6-6 by beating WSU and Colorado, the program's outlook would improve considerably. They could point to the win over Stanford and competitive games with Oregon State, UCLA and Arizona State as signs of progress in the Pac-12, even if they finished only 3-6 in the conference.
But if they lose Saturday, there's no polishing their record. It would mean 2-7 is the best they could do in Pac-12 play, and that would reflect poorly on BYU and Utah State as well. The Cougars and Aggies will have produced good seasons, but the fact remains they lost to one of the Pac-12's bottom-tier teams (although BYU can partially atone for that defeat by beating a middle-tier Pac-12 team in the Fight Hunger Bowl and USU may have a similar opportunity).
I've said since August that winning the three in-state games (counting Weber State) and three conference games would give Utah a successful season, after the Utes finished 5-7 last year. That standard may have seemed low when Utah moved to 4-2 by beating Stanford, but after four straight losses, the Utes are basically back on schedule.
There's no guarantee of a bowl berth for a 6-6 team, with the Pac-12 already having eight qualifiers for seven slots. Stanford now is unlikely to claim a second BCS bid, pushing everybody else down in the selection order. So Utah and probably Arizona might have to find vacancies outside of the conference's affiliated bowls.
That's almost irrelevant at this point. What matters to Utah is creating the perception of a program that's on the rise, and a 5-7 (or 4-8) record would not do that, even with those close losses. This is not about Whittingham's job. With a contract through 2016, he's solid through next season, which would become a significant checkpoint in the program's transition to the Pac-12.
But consecutive losing seasons would make for a long winter, certainly. That's why, regardless of their quarterback situation, the Utes have to beat Washington State and Colorado.