Genuine reasons have existed for Utah’s football team and fan base to worry about every Pac-12 opponent, from USC in September to UCLA in November.
All seven teams either were very talented or on upswings and deserved to be taken seriously. The concerns proved to be valid, in the cases of USC (Utah’s only loss) and Washington (a 60-minute game). Washington State, Oregon State, Arizona State, California and UCLA didn’t justify the buildup, though, judging by how the Utes subdued them.
Arizona? Framing the Wildcats (4-6) as a threat to No. 7 Utah (9-1) would require some imagination, going into Saturday night’s game at Arizona Stadium in Tucson. Unlike those previous opponents, the Wildcats have a five-game losing streak and are riddled with injuries and coaching staff changes, with only Senior Night and a mathematical hope of bowl eligibility as motivating factors.
The game in Arizona that Ute fans should agonize most about Saturday is probably in Tempe, where Utah needs No. 6 Oregon to beat Arizona State and continue to enhance the teams’ likely matchup in next month’s Pac-12 championship game. That would keep alive the possibility of the winner being selected to the College Football Playoff and the loser going to the Rose Bowl.
In advance of next week’s Senior Day game vs. Colorado, Utah would clinch the Pac-12 South title Saturday with a win in Tucson and a USC loss to UCLA. In the bigger picture of the Playoff, though, Utah would rather have USC win, making its loss to the Trojans look better.
As long as the Utes are not thinking about any of this stuff, they should be fine at Arizona.
The game will offer a good matchup of running backs, Utah’s Zack Moss and Arizona’s J.J. Taylor, who’s “one of my favorite backs in the league,” said Utah defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley. “I love that kid.”
The difference is Taylor will be challenging the country's No. 1 rushing defense, while Moss quickly should get the 45 yards he needs for his third 1,000-yard season, another school record.
Arizona coach Kevin Sumlin has fired three defensive coaches in the last month, including coordinator Marcel Yates. Former Wildcat star Chuck Cecil, Arizona's equivalent of Eric Weddle in Ute lore, was activated from a support staff position to coach the defense. He has succeeded only to the extent that allowing 471 yards in last week's 34-6 loss at Oregon showed improvement.
Similarly, the play of quarterbacks Tyler Huntley of Utah and Khalil Tate of Arizona should be entertaining, with the asterisk of Huntley’s facing the No. 126-ranked defense in the FBS.
If Utah's improving offensive line is not dominant against Arizona, that would be alarming. “You're only as good as your next game,” line coach Jim Harding said. His group is “coming along at a pretty nice pace, but we definitely need to do a better job of playing with technique and fundamentals.”
The imbalance between the teams is even more evident on the other side of the ball, where the Wildcats' makeshift line will meet an elite defensive front. Arizona's only hope is for Tate to scramble, as he once was feared for doing, or for freshman quarterback Grant Gunnell to get rid of the ball quickly to playmakers on the perimeter. Taylor posted 129 yards of rushing and receiving against Oregon, the Pac-12's No. 2 defense, but Arizona didn't score a touchdown.
The Utah defense’s only flaws have been shown on the road in Pac-12 play, as the Utes allowed four touchdowns each to USC and Washington. They also shut out Oregon State for 59 minutes.
UTAH AT ARIZONA
At Arizona Stadium, Tucson, Ariz.
Kickoff: 8 p.m.
Radio: ESPN 700.
Records: Utah 9-1 (6-1 Pac-12); Arizona 4-6 (2-5 Pac-12).
Series history: Utah leads, 23-19-2.
Last meeting: Utah 42, Arizona 10 (2018).
About the Utes: Utah can earn a seventh conference victory for the first time in the Pac-12 era; the Utes went 6-3 in 2015 and ’18. … The Utes are 2-2 in Pac-12 games in Tucson, including a 37-30, double-overtime loss in 2015 when they were 8-1 and ranked No. 10 in the College Football Playoff Top 25. … Kickoff time for next Saturday’s Senior Day game vs. Colorado will be either 2 p.m. or 5:30 p.m., to be confirmed Sunday.
About the Wildcats: Arizona joins Utah, SMU and Vanderbilt as FBS teams with a 6,000-yard career passer (Khalil Tate) and a 3,000-yard career rusher (J.J. Taylor). … Tate ranks No. 3 in school history in total offense with 8,254 yards. … The Wildcats beat UCLA (20-17) and Colorado (35-30) to open Pac-12 play, before losing five straight games. … Coach Kevin Sumlin is 9-13 in his second season at Arizona and 95-56 in his career, with stops at Houston and Texas A&M.