Utah’s football players and coaches walked off the field Friday night knowing they missed an opportunity to guarantee themselves a Rose Bowl berth, having lost 37-15 to Oregon in the Pac-12 championship game.
As other events unfolded Saturday, the Utes (11-2) realized a College Football Playoff semifinal spot would have been available to them if they had rallied in the fourth quarter. And then Sunday, it became evident that just a more competitive contest with Oregon might have sent Utah to the Cotton Bowl, a New Year's Six game.
That’s the background of Utah’s landing in the Alamo Bowl vs. Texas. That invitation would be celebrated as the biggest achievement in the program’s Pac-12 era, if not for those other possibilities that fell apart Friday in Santa Clara, Calif.
The Alamo Bowl, staged Dec. 31 in San Antonio (5:30 p.m. MST), is the Pac-12's top affiliate apart from the New Year's Six games. The Utes will play in the Alamodome, where Utah's basketball team competed in the 1998 Final Four.
Texas is in the Utes’ recruiting footprint; sophomore Brant Kuithe, the team’s leading receiver, is from a Houston suburb and receiver Jaylen Dixon is from the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Cameron Rising, who’s sitting out this season after transferring from Texas, is Utah’s scout-team quarterback. He’ll practice this month in the No. 11 jersey worn by former teammate Sam Ehlinger.
“It’s going to be great exposure for our team and program to come to San Antonio and be able to play in that state and have recruits take note of that,” Ute coach Kyle Whttingham said in a bowl teleconference.
Processing the loss to Oregon, Ute senior safety Terrell Burgess said Sunday, “I hate it more than anything, but we’ve just got to move on and get ready for the next game.”
Burgess expects all of his healthy teammates to play in San Antonio, defying a trend of NFL prospects skipping bowl games. Star safety Julian Blackmon may miss the game, due to his undisclosed injury Friday.
Utah is No. 11 in the College Football Playoff final rankings, missing an at-large berth to the Cotton Bowl by one spot. No. 10 Penn State will oppose No. 17 Memphis, the highest-ranked champion of a Group of Five conference, in Arlington, Texas.
The Utes are left to wonder if merely staying closer to Oregon would have elevated them enough. Utah trailed 23-15 and was driving early in the fourth quarter, only to end up allowing two long touchdown runs.
The CFP committee was “really impressed with Utah all year long,” said Oregon athletic director Rob Mullens, the chairman. Ranked No. 5 last week, the Utes were positioned to overcome their strength-of-schedule drawback, until playing another highly ranked team and losing. “When you compare that to Penn State, who beat a No. 14 Michigan, won at a No. 16 Iowa and had a quality nonconference win against Pitt, that ended up being the separator for those two teams,” Mullens said.
Being one rung below the New Year's Six “just shows you how close we are as a program,” Utah athletic director Mark Harlan said Sunday. “We know we're this close to reaching all our goals.”
Offensive tackle Darrin Paulo said he couldn’t watch football Saturday, being emotionally “kind of shaken up.” Burgess tuned in, recognizing that formerly No. 4 Georgia’s losing badly to LSU and No. 6 Oklahoma’s needing overtime to beat Baylor created a semifinal opening vs. LSU that Utah almost certainly would have filled — instead of Oklahoma, now No. 4.
Everything fell into place for the Utes, but “all of that didn't matter unless we did our job and, clearly, we didn't,” Burgess said.
So the Utes have to regroup, just as happened last December after they lost to Washington for the Pac-12 championship. Utah became the eighth straight loser of the conference title game to drop its bowl game, although the Utes were motivated enough to lead Northwestern 20-3 at halftime before fading in a 31-20 defeat in the Holiday Bowl.
Playing a brand-name school like Texas in a venue 80 miles from the UT campus should prod the Utes this time, even though the Longhorns (7-5) are unranked. Texas went 5-4 in the Big 12 to finish in a four-way tie for for third place. After the Longhorns ended the regular season with a 49-27 win over Texas Tech, coach Tom Herman fired defensive coordinator Todd Orlando, a former Utah State assistant, and reassigned offensive coordinator Tim Beck.
Alamo Bowl organizers could have matched USC, another iconic program, vs. Texas. They stuck with Utah, validating Harlan's confidence. “To have a chance to get the 11th-ranked [CFP] team is a pretty special thing,” he said, “and I'm sure they're excited about Texas.”
Utah fans responded very well to the school's first Holiday Bowl appearance last December. That showing was boosted by San Diego's being within driving distance and by the novelty of the program's first Pac-12 South title. Utah's ambitions were higher this year, making a non-New Year's Six game less attractive.
Harlan hopes to mobilize the fan base, knowing Texas already will have a home-field advantage in the 65,000-seat Alamodome and believing the Utes deserve support. “We’re going to need folks to fight off all that burnt orange and bring a lot of red to the game,” he said.