Utah could go from never having won a Pac-12 South football championship to becoming the first team ever to clinch the title in early November.
Mathematically, the Utes could secure a division championship Nov. 10 – with two regular-season games remaining, including a nonconference contest vs. BYU. As of a month ago, when Utah was 0-2 in conference play, what were the odds of that happening?
After a crazy Saturday in the league, Utah became the second-ranked Pac-12 team in the AP Top 25, moving up seven spots to No. 16 on Sunday. Utah also is No. 16 in the Coaches Poll.
Based partly on the jumbled race in the North, ESPN's Football Index gives Utah by far the best chance of winning the Pac-12 title, 48.4 percent.
The Utes (6-2, 4-2 Pac-12) have won four straight conference games for the first time since 2011, their initial season of membership. With three games to play, Utah holds a one-game lead over USC (3-3) and Arizona (3-3) and owns the tiebreaker with each team after victories in October.
Arizona State (2-3) remains in the picture after a 38-35 win at USC. The Sun Devils will host Utah on Saturday, with a chance to get within a half-game in the standings.
If the Utes win, though, they'll potentially be in position to clinch the South title by beating Oregon at home next week. Wins over ASU and Oregon would assure the Utes of finishing with no worse than a 6-3 conference record, while owning the tiebreakers vs. every South rival except Colorado, their opponent Nov. 17 in Boulder.
Colorado (2-3) may absorb a fourth conference loss prior to that game. The Buffaloes play at Arizona on Friday and host No. 10 Washington State on Nov. 10.
The Utes certainly wouldn't lack motivation against Colorado and BYU, even if they've already secured a berth in the Pac-12 championship game on Nov. 30 at Santa Clara, Calif. The winner of that game will represent the Pac-12 in the Rose Bowl. The Utes would be in the running for another New Year's Six game or one of the Pac-12's top-tier bowls if they finished 10-3 with a loss in the conference title game, and would need every possible victory to enhance those credentials.
Unlike the strategy that NFL teams use in advance of the playoffs, there’s hardly any history of college teams resting players prior to conference championship games. Utah vs. BYU is one of several nonconference rivalry games during Thanksgiving Weekend, including at least two others that involve likely contestants in league title games the following week: Georgia (facing Georgia Tech) and Clemson (meeting South Carolina). So count on Ute coach Kyle Whittingham using his first-choice lineup throughout November.
All of this discussion stems from a bizarre Saturday in the Pac-12. After the Utes produced a rather routine, 41-10 win at UCLA on Friday, they watched chaos unfold in the conference. The most shocking result was Oregon State’s 41-34 overtime win at Colorado, after the Beavers trailed 31-3 in the third quarter. Until then, Colorado was on track to create a title-deciding matchup vs. Utah in the South. That scenario is less likely now.
ASU’s win at USC was not completely unexpected, but California’s 12-10 defeat of Washington and Arizona’s 44-15 upset of Oregon came out of nowhere. Washington State kicked a late field goal to win 41-38 at Stanford, giving the Cougars the sole lead in the Pac-12 North.