In September, Utah football coach Kyle Whittingham processed the outcome of his team’s first Pac-12 game quickly enough to remind his players that the conference championship remained attainable, even after a 30-23 loss to USC.
That night in Los Angeles, Whittingham said he told the Utes, “I would bet any amount of money you want to bet, no one goes through the South undefeated … which means we've got a shot.”
His belief is being validated, although No. 6 Utah’s path to the Pac-12 South title and a spot in next week’s conference championship game vs. Oregon will have required eight straight victories — including a win in Saturday’s Senior Day game vs. Colorado at Rice-Eccles Stadium. No. 23 USC cooperated just enough by losing to Washington and Oregon, and the Utes have capitalized on their opportunity.
In his weekly news conference Monday, Whittingham said he had “a good inclination” that an 8-1 league record would become both necessary and sufficient for his team. And the Utes proceeded to win seven games in a row, already topping the program's high for Pac-12 victories in a season.
“Like we've said all year long, you just worry about what's in front of you,” Whittingham said. “And just have some confidence that the league is competitive enough that a one-loss record in conference play was probably going to be good enough.”
COLORADO AT NO. 6 UTAH
When • Saturday, 5:30 p.m.
TV • Ch. 4
That remains true; since the conference's expansion in 2011, no team has gone 9-0. Utah can thank North members Washington and Oregon for assistance vs. USC, in this year's case. If the Utes beat Colorado, USC (7-2) will finish second, even after sweeping its South rivals.
For the sake of their College Football Playoff credentials, the Utes may end up wishing No. 14 Oregon had gone unbeaten in Pac-12 play, creating a more glamorous matchup in the conference title game. Utah, likely to be No. 6 in the CFP Top 25 released Tuesday, could have used the potential boost into the top four that by beating another highly ranked team
Another effect of Oregon’s 31-28 loss Saturday at Arizona State is there’s no opportunity for a two-loss Utah team to play in the Rose Bowl, whether that defeat would come against Colorado or Oregon. The only possible fallback for Utah regarding the New Year’s Six games is a Cotton Bowl berth, if Oregon in the Rose Bowl as the Pac-12 champion. But that hope also is somewhat reduced now, because a Utah loss to Oregon would be less forgivable in the CFP rankings.
Because they played BYU in the regular-season finale, the Utes already had clinched their first South championship at this time last year. The team and its followers can finalize travel plans for the Dec. 6 conference title game only Saturday night, although many fans say they're already booked for Santa Clara, Calif.
As for the Senior Day pregame ceremony, junior cornerback Jaylon Johnson, who intends to enter the NFL draft, will be included if he wants to do so, Whittingham said.
After the team’s weightlifting session Monday, Johnson said the seniors deserve the pregame spotlight. “I just want to give the seniors their time,” he said. “If they want to recognize me another way, I’ll fully accept that.”
Sophomore receiver Bryan Thompson, who’s fifth on the team with 17 catches for 462 yards and three touchdowns, sustained an apparent knee injury at Arizona. Whittingham did not say how long Thompson will be out, but he said freshman Devaughn Vele has two games available to play while preserving his redshirt status. Utah’s activating Britain Covey, who has played the four-game limit for redshirting as a junior, is a “highly unlikely” option, Whittingham said.