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Can Utah get to the Pac-12 championship game even if it loses to Arizona State?

Utah Utes mailbag: Micah Bernard or Tavion Thomas, future football talent, “COVID year” eligibility

Arizona State quarterback Jayden Daniels (5) takes a hit from Utah defensive end Maxs Tupai (92) during the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 19, 2019, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Aaron Lowe was laid to rest on Monday afternoon in Dallas.

And while the slain defensive back will be on the Utes’ minds for the rest of the season and beyond, Kyle Whittingham and his team have chosen to honor Lowe by forging ahead with the season.

After an emotional week — a historic win over USC and then Lowe’s funeral — Utah shifts its attention to Arizona State.

What happens next?

With that, it is time for another Utah Utes mailbag.

As always if you have a question for the Utah Utes mailbag, you can fire off a tweet to @Joshua_Newman, slide into my DMs, email me at jnewman@sltrib.com, or even leave a comment at the bottom of this story.

Q: “If Utah loses to ASU, do you see any realistic path to the Pac-12 championship game?” - @nstod

A: It is important to remember that since the Pac-12 split into two divisions when Utah and Colorado arrived in 2011, there has never been an unbeaten South Division champion. The South winner has been 8-1, 7-2, and even 6-3 has been good enough on a couple of occasions to play for a spot in the Rose Bowl, but never 9-0.

All of that said, if Arizona State wins at Rice-Eccles Stadium on Saturday night, it will be very hard for anyone else to win the South Division and advance to the Pac-12 championship game.

If the Sun Devils win, they will be 4-0 in the Pac-12 with wins, and thus tiebreakers, vs. the Utes and UCLA, who are the only other viable South contenders at this point. If Utah loses, it will essentially be two games behind Arizona State. If UCLA loses at Washington, that will give the Bruins two league losses, which might as well be three if you consider they would lose the tiebreaker to Arizona State.

Utah winning at USC was huge. Utah getting a win over Arizona State to move to 3-0 in the Pac-12 would be bigger.

Q: “Is Micah Bernard hurt or is he just the backup now because Tavion Thomas is a more dynamic fumble-prone RB?” - @LrdImDiscouragd

A: Bernard was injured early in the second half of the Sept. 25 win over Washington State. He was healthy enough to touch the ball eight times at USC, including three catches on three targets. Is he the backup? He is listed on the latest two-deep as the starter, but that means little, if anything, right now.

Thomas, who had ball security issues for the first month of the season, had 16 carries for 113 yards, a touchdown and zero fumbles vs. the Trojans. Bernard may start, TJ Pledger may even start, but Thomas has the juice right now at a position that has been something of a revolving door through five games.

If Utah could get two consecutive games of consistency from one of these three guys, I’m willing to bet Kyle Whittingham would appreciate that a great deal.

Q: “Who wins a hypothetical Utah vs BYU rematch?” - @justincraig40

A: Good job stirring the pot here, knowing I would take this bait, hook, line, and sinker.

Don’t kid yourself. BYU is good, and it beat up Utah in what was a one-sided affair for the majority of four quarters on Sept. 11 in Provo.

If you line these teams up right now, a month later, with Utah’s offensive line figured out and healthy, neither of which were the case on Sept. 11, plus Viane Moala and JT Broughton out for the season, plus Cam Rising at quarterback in place of Charlie Brewer, my instinct is Vegas has this very close to a straight pick ‘em. At worst, this strikes me as BYU giving a couple of points, maybe as many as three.

Utah’s offense is clicking, but real questions persist about the defense’s ability to contain the pass, especially after it yielded 400 yards to Kedon Slovis. I like Utah if this turns into a shootout. I like Utah less if the deciding factor is the trenches.

I hate that you made me think about this when I’m hoping to go to bed. Well-played.

Q: “How well are the Utes set up for football success with all the freshmen stepping up like they have been so far this year? Also, with the pandemic, can sophomores declare for the draft for the next 3 years?” - @UnholiestJedi

A: Here is a back-of-the-napkin list of players who have made some level of impact this fall with freshman or sophomore eligibility: Micah Bernard, Keaton Bills, Xavier Carlton, Van Fillinger, Ja’Quinden Jackson, Kamo’i Latu, Faybian Marks, Jordan Noyes, Clark Phillips III, Money Park, Karene Reid, Junior Tafuna, Devaughn Vele, JT Broughton, Braeden Daniels, Cam Rising, Andrew Mata’afa, Malone Mataele, Tavion Thomas.

I’m sure I missed a few, but you get the point. Whittingham has said a few times dating back to the spring that he is optimistic about the young talent on his roster. If the majority of these guys stick around, Utah appears lined up for continued Pac-12 South contention.

I will be curious to see what some of the older guys with a lot of eligibility end up doing over the long run. To use Rising as an example, he is a fourth-year sophomore. There is no reason to believe he won’t return as a fifth-year junior, but what about beyond that? After 2022, what might his appetite be for a sixth year of college as a senior?

Bernard and Bills are both in a comparable position. Both are in their third year of college, but with freshman eligibility. Is there really going to be a desire to be in school for three more years?

Q: Everything I get from the U about men’s basketball on their “official” website lists the class ranking to include the COVID year. For example, Rollie Worster is listed as a sophomore, whereas I thought he was a “COVID freshman,” or Both Gach is a senior, but only if his year at Minnesota counts. He was only a Ute for 2 years so would be a “COVID junior,” aka a junior. Did last “year” count, or is the U just ready for some of them to move on??” -- Emailer Robert

A: I was going to let this email go, then I decided I wanted to end my evening on a low note.

Per the NCAA Division I Council in Oct. 2020, winter sport athletes who competed in 2020-21 received an additional season of competition, which essentially froze the eligibility clock.

Rollie Worster was a freshman last season, but the eligibility clock was frozen last season. Worster is a second-year freshman. If Gach gets an NCAA eligibility waiver, he will be a fourth-year junior. Riley Battin? Fourth-year junior. Jaxon Brenchley? Third-year sophomore. David Jenkins Jr.? Fifth-year junior.

I know Utah’s website has these guys listed on the roster without taking into account the COVID freebie year. I don’t have an answer as to why, nor does it matter as far as I’m concerned.

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