Utes in review: The Rose Bowl and the College Football Playoff now are clearly in Utah’s outlook

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah punt returner Demari Simpkins breaks free down the right sideline during a 66-yard punt return for a touchdown Saturday in the Utes' 45-15 win over Colorado at Rice-Eccles Stadium.

After each of his team's Tuesday afternoon practices in November, Utah coach Kyle Whittingham stopped for a brief interview and learned about the latest College Football Playoff rankings. His responses ranged from “zero reaction” to an expression of mild interest.

Whittingham saved his best answer for the last day of the month, following Utah’s 45-15 victory over Colorado in the regular-season finale. In the locker room Saturday night, as captured by a school-distributed video, he congratulated the players on another Pac-12 South championship, gave the game ball to the senior class and shouted, “Alabama lost today!”

The timing made his CFP focus allowable. Utah’s season is down to one last data point, Friday’s Pac-12 title game vs. Oregon (10-2) at Santa Clara, Calif. With a win, the Utes are guaranteed at least a Rose Bowl berth, with a decent opportunity for a playoff semifinal berth in Atlanta or Glendale, Ariz.

That’s what happens when the Utes (11-1) win eight straight games and Alabama’s tying field goal attempt hits the left upright in a 48-45 loss to Auburn. The Utes should take the No. 5 spot formerly held by Crimson Tide this week and could move into the top four by beating Oregon and having No. 4 Georgia lose to LSU in the Southeastern Conference championship game.

Oklahoma is lurking, meeting Baylor for the Big 12 title.

The Utes would love to beat Oregon and spend Saturday worrying about other games, with a Rose Bowl bid in their pocket. A loss would leave the Utes hoping for a New Year’s Six slot in the Cotton Bowl, needing to remain ahead of such teams as Florida and Penn State in the final CFP rankings.

Otherwise, the Utes likely would get the Pac-12′s Alamo Bowl spot. That would be a letdown at this point. ESPN’s Football Power Index gives Utah a 49% chance of beating Oregon; LSU has a 55.8% chance of defeating Georgia.

Three takeaways

• Utah’s standards have become incredibly high.

The Utes were unrecognizable for a while Saturday, just because they've been so dominant against every Pac-12 opponent except USC and Washington. The defense allowed a touchdown drive by Colorado in the first quarter and the offense netted 16 yards on its first nine plays.

“As a defense, we don’t feel like we were successful in this game,” senior end Bradlee Anae said. “They scored twice. And they weren’t supposed to score at all. That’s our mentality, every game, no matter who it is.”

• The Utes successfully adjusted to more perimeter running.

Handing the ball to Zack Moss up the middle is not always as effective it as may seem, and it certainly didn’t work Saturday. “I didn’t feel like we were overwhelmed by their physicality or anything like that,” Colorado coach Mel Tucker said.

Moss gained 16 yards on his first six carries; he finished with 88 yards on 20 attempts, giving him 1,246 for the season and 3,897 for his career. Offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig’s use of tight end Brant Kuithe and receivers Jaylen Dixon and Derrick Vickers on sweeps aided the running game.

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• Utah’s rushing defense is remarkable.

The statistics were misleading in the first half of the season, based on the quality of Utah's opponents and their level of interest in trying to run the ball. Lately, though, Utah's No. 1 ranking in rushing defense (56.3 yards) has been validated by teams that wanted to run.

Having sack yardage subtracted also helps. Colorado gained 99 yards, but lost 36 via five sacks — with Anae, end Mika Tafua and linebacker Devin Lloyd each getting 1½ sacks. Anae has tied Hunter Dimick’s school career record of 29½ sacks.

Player of the game

Brant Kuithe, tight end. His contribution in the second quarter was magnified by Utah’s slow start. His 18-yard catch on a third-and-13 play extended the drive that ended with his 38-yard touchdown pass from Tyler Huntley. On the next possession, he ran 44 yards with a third-and-1 handoff and caught a 7-yard TD pass. He posted 107 all-purpose yards on those four plays.

Kuithe added a 15-yard TD run in the fourth quarter. He’s now Utah’s leading receiver with 29 catches for 550 yards and has six total touchdowns in the last three games.

Play of the game

Huntley’s first touchdown pass to Kuithe. Huntley got away from a rusher, rolled to his right and could have run. Instead, he pointed to Kuithe to keep going and found him alone in the end zone for Utah’s first score. Even at 7-7, an anxious home crowd knew the Utes would assert themselves from there.

Up next

Utah will return to Levi’s Stadium, where the Pac-12 title game will be staged one last time before moving to Las Vegas. The Utes lost 10-3 to Washington last year, without giving up an offensive touchdown.

Utah will face Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert and one of the country’s best offensive lines, led by Outland Trophy finalist Penei Sewell, a tackle from Desert Hills High School in St. George. The Ducks’ offense was unimpressive in a 24-10 defeat of Oregon State, posting 365 total yards.