Kyle Whittingham authorized this story.
Utah’s football coach made clear that addressing his team’s possible defeat in the Pac-12 championship game is acceptable, pointing out that Saturday’s game vs. BYU could affect the Utes' standing in the conference’s bowl structure.
No matter what happens against BYU, the Utes (8-3) know they would be ticketed to the Rose Bowl with a win over Washington or Washington State in the Pac-12 title game next week at Santa Clara, Calif. What happens if they lose that game is where it gets interesting, and that’s just another reason why Whittingham wants to beat the Cougars for an eighth straight time.
BYU (6-6) is bowl-eligible and has ESPN's assurance that the network will find the Cougars a postseason spot, considering the network's broad ownership of bowls and its contract to televise BYU's home games. But coach Kalani Sitake said this week, “Nothing is a guarantee yet, because we haven't received an invitation. It would help to have seven wins. That would be really good. So let's try to get a guarantee this weekend.”
Sitake is using any motivational element available to him in Saturday's matchup. So is Whittingham, explaining why he would talk about a potential loss in the Pac-12 championship game, but not mention the Rose Bowl this week.
The common theme among 10 outlets' bowl projections is that Utah will play Texas or Iowa State in the Alamo Bowl in San Antonio and BYU will face North Texas in the First Responders Bowl in Dallas, where Utah beat West Virginia last December.
The Alamo Bowl has the first choice of Pac-12 teams other than the champion and took the last two losers of conference title games. Those teams (Colorado in 2016 and Stanford in 2017) were No. 3 picks, with two Pac-12 schools in New Year's Six games. After the Utes went 6-3 in conference play this season, a team that finishes 6-3 or 5-4 is eligible to be chosen over them.
The likely sequence of events that would send Utah to San Antonio includes Washington State beating Washington on Friday and defeating Utah next week. If Washington wins Friday, WSU likely would become attractive to the Alamo Bowl.
The Utes then could fall to the Holiday Bowl in San Diego, within driving distance for their fans. Some projections have Utah meeting Iowa of the Big Ten.
Yet if the Utes lose badly in the championship game (or fall to BYU), and the Alamo Bowl overlooks them, the Holiday Bowl then might choose a team such as Oregon. That’s the scenario proposed by The Athletic’s Stewart Mandel, a longtime college football expert, who suggests the Utes in that case could drop all the way to the Sun Bowl in El Paso, Texas.
BYU once was contracted to play in the 2018 Poinsettia Bowl in San Diego, but the event went out of business after the Cougars' 2016 appearance. So the Cougars could land in any bowl that needs a team, whether they fill a planned at-large berth or a spot vacated by a conference that lacks enough bowl-eligible teams.
Some 6-6 teams may be left out of bowls, as happened last year to Buffalo, Western Michigan and Texas-San Antonio, from Group of Five conferences. That's unlikely to happen to BYU, because of ESPN's ties and the school's “great reputation,” as athletic director Tom Holmoe said in August.
The ESPN-owned First Responders Bowl, played at the Cotton Bowl, is scheduled to match teams from the Big Ten and Conference USA. But if the Big Ten has multiple teams in New Year’s Six games, it wouldn’t fill that slot. The same possibility applies to the Redbox Bowl in Santa Clara, where some projections have BYU filling in for the Big Ten vs. Oregon.
Tribune reporter Jay Drew contributed to this story.