Pac-12 football teams will fill 12 hours of television programming Saturday, with traditional rivalries and meaningful games throughout the schedule.
Utah’s Pac-12 era might be redefined and the program’s theme of November disappointment may be permanently altered by what happens in those 12 hours between 11:30 a.m. and 11:30 p.m. MST. Amid the forecasted daytime snow showers at Colorado’s Folsom Field and the nighttime clear skies at Oregon’s Autzen Stadium, everything finally could converge in the Utes' favor. Or not.
It would be quite a story if Utah coach Kyle Whittingham, offensive coordinator Troy Taylor and a cast of players featuring fill-in quarterback Jason Shelley and running back Armand Shyne produce another emotional victory Saturday, facing Colorado in Boulder. The next chapter would be having Oregon beat Arizona State, giving the Utes their first Pac-12 South championship in eight seasons of conference membership.
Other variables are in play, but that’s the clearest path for the Utes, as of this weekend. For the first time in seven years, they’ve managed to make their last Pac-12 game important.
“It's a credit to our players,” Whittingham said. “We haven't been perfect; we've stumbled along the way, but they're resilient, they keep coming back.”
Taylor likes Shelley's “no-drama” demeanor. That's a good trait for a QB, especially in November. The month historically has been unkind to Utah teams competing for South titles. And here comes Colorado, evoking memories of Utah's first opportunity to advance to the Pac-12 championship game.
The Buffaloes staged a 17-14 upset at Rice-Eccles Stadium in 2011, when USC was ineligible for postseason play and Utah could have taken the South’s berth. In more recent episodes, the Utes lost November home games to Arizona in 2014, UCLA in 2015 and Oregon in 2016, when they could have created a showdown with Colorado for the South title. That game became important only to the Buffaloes, whose 27-22 win completed a worst-to-first run.
Colorado has regressed. After a 5-0 start this season, the Buffs have lost five straight games and need one more win for bowl eligibility, amid reports of coach Mike MacIntyre’s shaky job status. They’re good enough to summon a strong effort Saturday, considering they beat Arizona State in October and feature quarterback Steven Montez and receiver Laviska Shenault. Similar tandems from ASU and Oregon have thrived against the Utes, who will stick with the hand-painted, wing-themed helmets they wore against the Ducks last weekend.
Shenault will challenge a Utah secondary that finally subdued Oregon’s Dillon Mitchell by having cornerback Jaylon Johnson shadow him, as opposed to staying on one side. That’s a potential strategy Saturday, while the Ute offense will face a Colorado defense that ranks in the middle of the Pac-12.
With the weather conditions as a variable, Utah will need another big day from Shyne and consistency from Shelley. Shyne ran for 174 yards against Oregon, but was stymied near the goal line. Coaches praised Shelley's poise in a turnover-free game, but he got away with a couple of errant throws.
Even after dominating Oregon at the start, the Utes ended up needing a fourth-quarter touchdown drive to regain the lead. Utah's history vs. Colorado suggests something similar may be required Saturday.
This is the first (and probably last) time Utah will conclude Pac-12 play in mid-November, in advance of BYU’s visit. The Utes are favored by seven points, but downtrodden Colorado teams usually have made them agonize for 60 minutes. So why should this game be any different? The theme of Utah’s Pac-12 schedule remains true to the end: If the Utes win their first South title, they will have earned it.
UTAH AT COLORADO
At Folsom Field, Boulder, Colo.
Kickoff: Saturday, 11:30 a.m. MST
TV: Pac-12 Networks.
Radio: ESPN 700.
Records: Utah 7-3 (5-3 Pac-12); Colorado (5-5, 2-5).
Series history: Colorado leads, 32-29-3.
Last meeting: Utah 34, Colorado 13 (2017).
About the Utes: Utah moved back into the Pac-12′s top five and the nation’s top 50 in total offense with a 494-yard game vs. Oregon. The Utes are averaging 427.0 yards. … Utah has dropped slightly to No. 3 in the Pac-12 and No. 19 nationally in total defense, allowing 323.7 yards. … The Utes and Buffaloes kicked off even earlier (11 a.m.) in Boulder in November 2014, under ideal conditions.
About the Buffaloes: Colorado is ranked between No. 4 and No. 8 in the Pac-12 in every major statistical category, notably No. 4 in passing offense (266.3 yards). … Coach Mike MacIntyre, whose future has been a subject of discussion this week, is 30-43 in his sixth season; he’s 1-4 vs. Utah, with his 2016 victory having given Colorado a Pac-12 South title.