Santa Clara, Calif. • In his eagerness to answer, Utah football coach Kyle Whittingham occasionally interrupts a question.
That happened Friday night, when someone mentioned how the previous losers of Pac-12 championship games have never won their bowl games in those seven seasons. Whittingham’s immediate response: “So should we not show up?”
The question, as it developed, was a good one: After their 10-3 loss to Washington at Levi’s Stadium, how would the Utes recover from the disappointment of missing the Rose Bowl?
“They've had to move on from a lot of stuff this season,” Whittingham said, confident his team would do so again.
The question to be answered Sunday afternoon is where the Utes will be sent and how far they may fall in the Pac-12's bowl structure.
The first clue will come at 1 p.m. MST, when the New Year's Six pairings are announced. If Washington State (10-2) is not included in any of those games, the Alamo Bowl likely will choose the Cougars over Utah (9-4) as the Pac-12 contestant in San Antonio. Then comes the Holiday Bowl's choice: Oregon (8-4) or Utah?
Oregon's national brand is strong, and the Ducks feature junior quarterback Justin Herbert, potentially the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft. Oregon last appeared in San Diego in 2008.
Utah also would be a novelty, with what athletic director Mark Harlan labeled “a compelling story” about a team that earned its first Pac-12 South title and brought a big following to northern California for Friday’s game. San Diego is within driving distance for Utahns.
If the Holiday Bowl takes Oregon, though, the Santa Clara-based Redbox Bowl probably would pass over the Utes, because they just played there. Utah then would land in the Sun Bowl in El Paso, Texas. The Pac-12′s No. 5 bowl slot (vs. an Atlantic Coast Conference team) would be the lowest ever for the conference championship game’s loser.
Regardless of the destinaton, Whittingham already is pitching the opportunity for a 10th win as motivation. The Utes will have time to regroup, after playing 10 straight weeks since their bye in mid-September.
“I'm going to do whatever I can to rally these guys and go out on top,” said senior offensive tackle Jackson Barton.
That will be a challenge for both the team and the fan base after the Rose Bowl was in their sights. “We were this close, but we let it slip away,” Barton said. “That's all that can be said about it.”
College locker rooms generally are closed after regular-season games, but often opened to the media after conference title games and bowls. So as Barton spoke a half-hour after Friday's game, the Utes still wore their uniforms pants, waiting for the locker room to be cleared.
Utah receiver Siaosi Mariner sat with his head down, processing the two most memorable plays of the game — both involving Washington cornerback Byron Murphy. A third-quarter pass went off Mariner’s hands and leg, popped into the air and was intercepted by Murphy, who returned the ball 66 yards for the game’s only touchdown.
The game’s final pass also was intended for Mariner, who was hit by Murphy before the ball arrived. But no flag was thrown for pass interference, leading to Whittingham’s angry protest as the officials left the field.
Who knows what may have happened next. A penalty would have given the Utes the ball at the Washington 27-yard line with 27 seconds left, after they took a long time to drive from their 7. Scoring a tying touchdown would have been difficult, on a night when the Utes totaled 188 yards, but they'll always wish they had another chance.
Young players already are talking about being driven to get back to Santa Clara in 2019, when the Utes will be many observers' favorites to repeat in the South. That's a discussion for January and the seven months to follow.
The current issue is how the Utes will respond to what’s ahead in late December, with the possibility of another letdown Sunday when the bowls make their picks.
Bowl game defeats for losers of Pac-12 championship games:
2011 • Illinois 20, UCLA 14 (Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl).
2012 • Baylor 49, UCLA 26 (Holiday Bowl).
2013 • Texas Tech 37, Arizona State 23 (Holiday Bowl).
2014 • Boise State 38, Arizona 30 (Fiesta Bowl).
2015 • Wisconsin 23, USC 21 (Holiday Bowl).
2016 • Oklahoma State 38, Colorado 8 (Alamo Bowl).
2017 • TCU 39, Stanford 37 (Alamo Bowl).