Utah football: With late-season rally, Utes still have shot at Pac-12 title game
Just seven games ago, a clearly dejected and disappointed coach Kyle Whittingham sat in the postgame interview room underneath Rice-Eccles Stadium and essentially stuck a fork in his team following Utah's 35-14 loss to Arizona State, declaring the Utes' quest for the Pac-12 South title over.
"It's a done deal," he said at the time. "Going 0-3 in conference, that is an insurmountable figure."
At the time, hardly anyone would have disagreed with him.
But look where the Utes are now. Thanks to their improved play and four-game winning streak and the implosion of Arizona State's season, the Utes now have a chance of doing what they thought was impossible playing for the Pac-12 championship.
The Utes must beat Colorado (2-10, 1-7) on Friday, Arizona State must lose to Cal, and UCLA must lose at USC for Utah's improbable finish to be complete since it owns the tiebreaker with the Bruins.
The likely representative from the North is Oregon (9-2, 7-1), which concludes its season with a game against Oregon State (3-8, 3-5) and owns the tiebreaker with Stanford (10-1, 8-1).
However, who can count on anything in this season?
No matter what happens, the fact that the Utes even have a chance at such a finish heading into the last game of the season is satisfying to a team labeled a BCS bust when it lost its first four conference games.
The Utes showed their resiliency by digging out of the conference hole and outlasting Washington State 30-27 in overtime Saturday after blowing two 10-point leads in regulation.
"We dropped four games in a row and could have said that was it," Whittingham said. "We fought back, and the guys continued to battle and work hard. It's a process that went on, and we never panicked and stayed the course. We're 4-4, it's still not where we want to be, but we've made a lot of progress."
They've made enough progress to complete an unimaginable feat and reach the conference championship with four losses.
Losses by Pac-12 champions aren't rare. In the past 10 years, only USC (2004, 2005) and Oregon (2009) made it through league play unscathed. In 2006 USC and Cal tied for the league title with two losses each and in 2007, USC and ASU tied with two losses each.
But four losses, who would have thought it possible?
Arizona State probably didn't. The Sun Devils were sitting pretty a few weeks ago, but now have lost four of their past five games and three in a row including Saturday's 31-27 defeat by Arizona.
That outcome along with Washington's upset by Oregon State, and USC's 38-35 win over Oregon illustrate that conference standings mean little when teams play in the Pac-12 this year.
Through it all the Utes have continued their upward swing, and now are just a few favorable circumstances away from achieving a goal they once thought impossible.
"We turned it around," defensive lineman Derrick Shelby said of the season, believing the Utes have regained some of the national respect they lost earlier. "We've done everything you can do. To be 3-4 and now 7-4, that has to show for something."
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Pac-12 championship game
How the Utes get there • The Utes must beat Colorado on Friday, Arizona State must lose to Cal, and UCLA must lose at USC for Utah to represent the South in the Pac-12 championship. USC is ineligible due to NCAA sanctions.
Where and when • The title game will be Dec. 2 at 6 p.m. on the campus of the division winner with the best conference record, which will be the North representative, either Oregon or Stanford. Fox will televise the game.
What is at stake • The winner of the Pac-12 championship will earn the league's automatic BCS berth.
How to get tickets • Utah will start taking pre-orders for tickets from Crimson Club members on Monday.