Utes play Colorado with a lot at stake and the coach wants fans there early

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah senior quarterback Tyler Huntley (1) tries to escape Arizona linebacker Colin Schooler during a 35-7 win last Saturday at Tucson, Ariz.

Utah coach Kyle Whittingham interrupted his own answer to an unrelated question, working in a request for fans to arrive at Rice-Eccles Stadium in time for the Senior Day ceremony prior to Saturday’s 5:30 p.m. kickoff vs. Colorado.

That's fair, as long as the Utes don't make them agonize until the end of the game on a cold night in late November.

No. 6 Utah (10-1) is positioned to celebrate a second straight Pac-12 South championship and advance to the conference title game vs. Oregon, with the Rose Bowl or even the College Football Playoff in view. All the Utes have to do is beat a Colorado team with a losing record, while honoring a potentially legendary senior class.

“We have good players graduate every year,” Whittingham said. “We seem to have an abundance of them this year.”

Driven by those 11 senior starters, the Utes are four-touchdown favorites Saturday. ESPN's Football Power Index gives them a 95.1% chance of winning, with ABC's prime-time telecast showcasing a team that's rising in the CFP rankings. What could go wrong?

The haunting history of 2011 is in play, after that Utah team needed only to beat the lowly Buffaloes to qualify for the Pac-12 championship game vs. Oregon (with USC ineligible). The Utes lost 17-14. In this year’s case, a 10-2 Utah team could fall to the Holiday Bowl by losing to Colorado.

More relevant and encouraging examples come from the programs’ past two meetings. With both teams needing a win for bowl eligibility in 2017, Utah took a 28-0 lead on the way to a 34-13 win, with Zack Moss rushing for 196 yards. Last November, the Utes earned their first Pac-12 South title via a 30-7 victory in the snow in Boulder, Colo.

In any case, the Buffs have created just enough evidence lately to make Utah worry about securing an eighth straight victory. Colorado has posted wins of 16-13 at Stanford and 20-14 over the Washington team that scored 28 points against Utah's No. 3-ranked defense.

The main X-and-O components are whether Utah can contain Colorado receiver Laviska Shenault and protect quarterback Tyler Huntley from a pass-rushing group that Whittingham said has shown “exotic pressure packages” the past two weeks and recorded five sacks against Washington. Ute cornerback Jaylon Johnson likely will be assigned to Shenault, who’s known for gaining big yards after the catch. Utah’s improving offensive line will be tested, and it will help if Moss maintains his rushing success after shredding UCLA and Arizona for a total of 330 yards.

After enduring a five-game losing streak in coach Mel Tucker's first season, Colorado (5-6) is hoping to become bowl eligible for the first time since winning the South title in 2016. “They're obviously motivated,” Whittingham said.

So are the Utes, recognizing what’s available to them and how far they’ve come since opening Pac-12 play with a loss at USC. That defeat “just brought us down to earth,” defensive end Bradlee Anae said. “There was a lot of hype at the beginning of the season, as you know. ... It made us click as a team and come together, instead of falling apart.”

By finishing 7-2 in conference play, USC is forcing Utah to go 8-1 to overtake the Trojans for the South title. Utah never had gone better than 6-3 in Pac-12 play before winning seven games in a row this season.

The Utes again will wear 1960s-style uniforms to observe the 150-year anniversary of college football, while trying to become the South's first repeat winner since UCLA in 2011-12.

Fans are allowed to concern themselves with the modern invention of the CFP. No. 5 Alabama’s trip to Auburn is the game that most affects Utah, followed by No. 7 Oklahoma vs. Oklahoma State.

Of course, those scores will become irrelevant to Utah if Colorado stages an upset. The Utes have to do their part‚ with the help of the home crowd that’s supposed to be in their seats early. So don’t tell anybody the actual kickoff time is 5:44 p.m.


At Rice-Eccles Stadium

Kickoff: 5:30 p.m.

TV: Ch. 4.

Radio: ESPN 700.

Records: Colorado 5-6 (3-5 Pac-12); Utah 10-1 (7-1).

Series history: Colorado leads, 32-30-3.

Last meeting: Utah 30, Colorado 7 (2018).

About the Buffaloes: Colorado quarterback Steven Montez needs 37 yards to break Sefo Liufau’s school career total offense record of 10,509 yards. … The Buffaloes’ defense had allowed 30-plus points in 14 straight games before holding Stanford to 13 and Washington 14. … Colorado has used 38 starters at the 22 offensive and defensive positions, mostly due to injuries. … Colorado’s No. 8 team of 1961 that lost 21-12 to Utah is the highest-ranked club to have played in this series.

About the Utes: Utah has won 13 of its last 15 Pac-12 games, starting with a win at Stanford in October 2018. ... Pac-12 quarterback Tyler Huntley and running back Zack Moss have accounted for 3,994 of Utah’s 5,071 yards (78.8%). … The Utes last appeared in the ABC prime-time slot in a 2017 game at USC, a 28-27 loss via a failed 2-point play. … An eight straight win would match Utah’s longest in-season streak since the 2010 team started 8-0.