No matter what happens Friday night, no one should minimize the Utah football team’s achievement of winning the Pac-12 South title.
Even so, the No. 17 Utes know they need to maximize this opportunity, facing No. 10 Washington in the Pac-12 championship game at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif.
If the Utes win, they will advance to the Rose Bowl on New year’s Day and earn a conference trophy. A loss would mean playing in a far less glamorous event in December and being known as just another South champion that failed in the end.
“We're going to be writing history,” Utah receiver Britain Covey said. “Win or lose … people are going to talk about it for the next whoever-knows-how-many years.”
Exactly how will they remember this team, though? That's conditional.
Reaching this point is “gigantic; I think it's a really big step for us,” said Utah athletic director Mark Harlan. “To see the guys rewarded, to see our fans rewarded … it's a big stage.”
FOX analyst Petros Papadakis said, “I don't care how down the South is this year, that's a huge deal for Utah football.”
Utah became the last South member to win the division title, representing a breakthrough for the program. A football championship of a Power Five conference would be even more remarkable for a school that began this decade in the Mountain West.
Yet the shelf life of a South title alone is short, judging by the list of coaches fired at some point after appearing in Pac-12 championship games of this decade: UCLA's Rick Neuheisel and Jim Mora, Arizona State's Todd Graham, Arizona's Rich Rodriguez and Colorado's Mike MacIntyre.
Utah’s Kyle Whittingham is trending toward a much more satisfying ending of his career than those coaches, and his 2019 team will be loaded with talent as a potential Pac-12 favorite. But nothing is promised regarding another chance for the Rose Bowl, a prize that would be “a coronation of what he has created over the years,” Papadakis said.
The Utes' difficult route to Santa Clara already distinguishes this season, regardless of how it ends. Whittingham steadied his team after an 0-2 start in conference play in September, producing a 4-0 October and an impressive response to injury-related adversity that followed.
Now comes the last day of November, when the Utes are right back where they were in mid-September: They’ll be trying to move the ball and score points against one of the country’s best defenses, a group comparable to their own.
Utah’s 21-7 loss to the Huskies was the offense’s bottoming-out point, a 261-yard effort marked by three turnovers, a bunch of dropped passes and some blown scoring chances. Part of their season’s story is how that game made offensive coordinator Troy Taylor move to a more run-oriented scheme, successfully relying on Zack Moss.
That brings up two issues: Moss is out for the season with a knee injury, and the Huskies' defensive strength that made Taylor avoid trying to run against them remains intact. Washington is led by linebacker Ben Burr-Kirven, considered the top candidate for the Pac-12 defensive player of the year award, over Utah’s Chase Hansen.
Armand Shyne ran for 174 yards vs. Oregon in his first start as Moss' replacement, but he totaled only 102 yards on 32 carries against Colorado and BYU. The Utes will need more production from Shyne and some creativity in the running game Friday. Otherwise, too much would be asked of redshirt freshman quarterback Jason Shelley, the son of a former Washington receiver.
“Our guys are playing with some confidence right now,” said Whittingham, who believes Shelley will thrive on another big stage, because of his steady personality.
As for the Huskies, a Rose Bowl bid would cap the careers of quarterback Jake Browning and running back Myles Gaskins, two of the most prolific players in conference history. Washington’s offense is not overwhelming, however; only against Oregon State have the Huskies topped 31 points in Pac-12 play.
Utah’s defense undoubtedly will keep the Utes in this game. The big question, just as in September, is whether Utah’s offense can rise to a Rose Bowl level.
PAC-12 CHAMPIONSHIP GAME
NO. 17 UTAH VS. NO. 10 WASHINGTON
At Levi's Stadium, Santa Clara, Calif.
Kickoff: 6:20 p.m. MST.
TV: Ch. 13 (coverage begins at 6 p.m.).
Radio: ESPN 700.
Records: Utah 9-3 (6-3 Pac-12); Washington 9-3 (7-2 Pac-12).
Series history: Washington leads, 11-1.
Last meeting: Washington 21, Utah 7 (Sept. 15).
About the Utes: Utah LB Chase Hansen will make his fourth start vs. the Huskies; he missed the 2017 game due to injury. … The Utes played at Levi’s Stadium in 2016, beating Indiana 26-24 in the Foster Farms Bowl. … Utah scored touchdowns on all three trips inside the 20-yard line vs. BYU last week, after kicking six short field goals against Oregon and Colorado.
About the Huskies: Washington beat Colorado in the 2016 conference title game at Santa Clara, advancing to the College Football Playoff. … Provo High School alumnus Ty Jones in the Huskies' No. 2 receiver with 28 catches for 469 and six touchdowns, including a score vs. Utah in September. … Washington has lost three games by a total of 10 points, including an overtime defeat at Oregon.
Results of Pac-12 championship games:
2011 – Oregon 49, UCLA 31.
2012 – Stanford 27, UCLA 24.
2013 – Stanford 38, Arizona State 14.
2014 – Oregon 51, Arizona 13.
2015 – Stanford 41, USC 22.
2016 – Washington 41, Colorado 10.
2017 – USC 31, Stanford 28.