Utes want their football season to end well, but they’ll have to defy Pac-12 history to pull it off

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah players, including safety Marquise Blair (13), walk off the field after a 31-20 loss to Northwestern in the 2018 Holiday Bowl in San Diego.

An invitation to play Texas in the Alamo Bowl on New Year’s Eve is Utah’s biggest achievement of the football program’s Pac-12 era. It also represents the Utes’ biggest disappointment.

A berth in the College Football Playoff — or, at a minimum, the fabled Rose Bowl — was available to Utah, with a No. 5 ranking going into the Pac-12 championship game vs. Oregon. The Utes were relegated to a bowl below the New Year’s Six level after a 37-15 loss, although the Alamo Bowl is the Pac-12′s highest-ranked affiliate ever to select them.

That mixture of reward and punishment for a landmark season makes Tuesday’s game in San Antonio fascinating. The Utes are known for their bowl success in the Kyle Whittingham coaching era, but they’re also part of some remarkable history. Including Utah’s loss to Northwestern in last December’s Holiday Bowl, none of the eight losers of the Pac-12 championship game won its subsequent bowl game.

The result was the Utes’ living with consecutive defeats to end a season for the first time since 1996. This season showed there’s no lasting effect of such a conclusion, considering they went 8-1 in conference play to win another to win Pac-12 South title.

In any case, the 2019 Utes (11-2) are determined to be different. “Trends are made to be broken,” said Whittingham, who contends last year’s 31-20 defeat in San Diego was more a case of “our own undoing” than any carryover from Utah’s loss to Washington in the conference title game.


Bowl game defeats for losers of Pac-12 championship games:

2011 • Illinois 20, UCLA 14 (Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl).

2012 • Baylor 49, UCLA 26 (Holiday Bowl).

2013 • Texas Tech 37, Arizona State 23 (Holiday Bowl).

2014 • Boise State 38, Arizona 30 (Fiesta Bowl).

2015 • Wisconsin 23, USC 21 (Holiday Bowl).

2016 • Oklahoma State 38, Colorado 8 (Alamo Bowl).

2017 • TCU 39, Stanford 37 (Alamo Bowl).

2018 • Northwestern 31, Utah 20 (Holiday Bowl)

The evidence for that argument is the Utes’ 20-3 halftime lead, before “we just turned the ball over five consecutive times, or whatever it was [four, actually],” Whittingham said.

Whittingham also can point to his 5-1 record in bowl games, coming off a loss.

The Utes intend “to make sure we attack this game — not just for our seniors, but for next year, just catapulting this team into next year,” said senior running back Zack Moss. “You never want to end the season on two losses. Guys will be energized to play again. … our coaches have done a really good job job of making sure that everyone doesn’t linger on that loss and can’t allow it to seep in and affect our practices for this game.”

Other title-game losers have said the same things, though. A routine search reveals repeated use of some form of the word “motivation,” connected to such teams in this decade.

“The Buffs have a much more simple reason to want to win. They don’t want their final memory of such an outstanding season to be another loss. They have had a month to stew over their last game — a 41-10 loss to Washington in the Pac-12 Championship game — and they don’t want to spend the next several months with a similar feeling about the Alamo Bowl.”

cubuffs.com, December 2016

The theory makes sense, how a highly successful team is determined to finish well and is mentally tough enough to overcome its recent loss. And a Pac-12 division winner should be sufficiently talented to match up with a team from the Big 12 or the Big Ten.


Utah coach Kyle Whittingham's results in bowl games, following a defeat:

2006 • Utah 25, Tulsa 13.

2007 • Utah 35, Navy 32.

2009 • Utah 37, California 27.

2011 • Utah 30, Georgia Tech 27 (OT).

2016 • Utah 26, Indiana 24.

2018 • Northwestern 31, Utah 20.

That viewpoint wouldn’t explain why the Pac-12 runner-up is 0-8 in bowl games, including some routs such as Oklahoma State’s 38-8 win over Colorado in the 2016 Alamo Bowl and Baylor’s 49-26 victory over Arizona State in the 2012 Holiday Bowl. Arizona (2014) is the only title-game loser that still made a New Year’s Six game, and the Wildcats’ rally fell short in a 38-30 loss to Boise State in the Fiesta Bowl.

Utah, ranked No. 11 in the College Football Playoff’s final standings, barely missed a Cotton Bowl invitation that went to No. 10 Penn State. The Nittany Lions will oppose Memphis on Saturday in Arlington, Texas. That afternoon, LSU meets Oklahoma, with the Sooners occupying the CFP semifinal spot that the Utes may have filled if they had beaten Oregon.

“We will bring a motivated Trojan team that is anxious to finish the 2015 season on a high note, and they especially want to do so for our seniors and our fans.”

– USC coach Clay Helton, prior to a 23-21 loss to Wisconsin in the 2015 Holiday Bowl.

It is fair to say that a team's losing the bowl game doesn't necessarily mean it lacked motivation. As Whittingham observed, the Utes appeared to be driven and focused in the first half vs. Northwestern, before everything crumbled with four third-quarter turnovers. The killer was the Wildcats' 86-yard fumble return for a touchdown, after the Utes were positioned to add to a 20-10 lead.

Until being reminded of it this month, Whittingham had forgotten about the bowl history of those losing teams in the Pac-12 championship game. He initially learned about the trend right after the 2018 title contest, when he responded, “So should we not show up?”

Utah showed up in San Diego for a half, but then fell apart.



When• Tuesday, 5:30 p.m. MST