Everybody expected … what else? … the inevitable on Saturday night when Utah faced Arizona in a game that ended up looking like college football’s version of a Freightliner blowing past a Fiat 500 on a lonely stretch of dark-dusty desert highway. With all 18 Ute wheels thundering by, the Wildcats’ cartoon car shook and shuddered, ultimately skidding and spinning in the wind sheer.
The big rig had 517 total yards. The subcompact 196.
Through that one-sided whirl, two things were manifested: 1) The average team in the Pac-12 — Arizona — is not much to look at, and 2) The Utes are.
On account of the college game’s antiquated reliance on perception, such things are important.
Utah helped itself and hurt itself by doing the only thing it could — put a beatdown on an inferior team, 35-7. If anyone from the CFP selection committee watched this thumping, the disparity had to hit them over the head like a swinging socket wrench.
And while it’s not the Utes’ fault they are now having their way in a substandard P5 league, the same way it’s not Clemson’s fault the ACC sucks, you have to suspect that the Catch-22 in which Utah finds itself isn’t aiding its cause.
If the Utes crush their opponents, they appear most impressive.
If the Utes crush their opponents, those teams combine to reinforce the notion that Utah hasn’t played and isn’t playing anybody of significance this season. Oregon’s loss to Arizona State doesn’t help.
Such are the conundrums and vagaries created by a playoff system that includes only four teams from five power leagues and whoever else, forcing 13 judges to lean, at the end of the runway, on their own view of beauty, on their own opinions about who to reward and who to punish.
And the Utes are caught in the middle, fearing that their best efforts might relegate them, without a playoff invite, to that awful fate of having to play in the Rose Bowl.
If Utah goes ahead and beats Colorado at Rice-Eccles on Saturday and then defeats a devalued Oregon in the Pac-12 championship game, it will ensure for itself a spot in the best bowl game the program has ever seen, a fine prize for what is the most talented team the school has ever had.
The hell with the playoff, any which way, the granddaddy is reward enough.
Either way, despite some mistakes in decision-making, clock management and penalties, the Utes pretty much played like themselves.
The Wildcats played … like themselves.
The program in Tucson had lost five straight games, had a freshman quarterback starting, relegating Kahlil Tate to relief duty, had a bunch of newbies along the offensive line, and had two assistants who got into a fistfight on the sideline last week.
There are no such troubles plaguing the Utes.
Utah’s defense came into this matchup allowing about half as many yards as Arizona’s D, and the difference, as noted, was evident throughout. The Cats had Tate, a double-barreled threat at quarterback who has been hit and miss, but who nonetheless can mash on occasion. That’s always Kyle Whittingham’s biggest fear, facing a QB who can move and throw.
But Utah’s attack, led by the ever-efficient Tyler Huntley, worked over Arizona’s compromised defense. Huntley threw for 211 yards and Zack Moss ran for 203. Rock stars. Rock steady.
The character and mindset of this Ute team is strong and dynamic, focused on taking proper care of its business. That’s worth underscoring, especially alongside its physical prowess, and it’s the theme Whittingham has repeatedly presented to his players. Dial in on exactly what’s in front of them. That’s a lesson the team learned from its one goof-up, the loss on a long-ago Friday night at the Coliseum to USC. Utah would beat the Trojans nine times out of 10, but the one stumble is the one that counted.
Pity for such a worthy group.
Apparently, the Utes would beat Arizona 10 out of 10 times.
The only thing left for them to do is to win out, to beat the Buffs and the Ducks, not just for whatever their reward will be, but because they can.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.