A college football game of significant consequence will be played Saturday evening at Rice-Eccles Stadium, unless you are of the belief that No. 23 Utah hosting No. 3 and potential College Football Playoff participant Oregon is not a big deal for the home team.
Yes, you read that right. From the Utah perspective, this perceived Clash of the Titans might not be the huge to-do many people have made it out to be.
We’re going to start this week’s Utah Utes mailbag with that very topic. 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 firstname.lastname@example.org, or even leave a comment at the bottom of this story.
Q: “The ceiling/goal of Kyle Whittingham’s Utah football team is to play in the Rose Bowl. How does one make the argument, with a straight face, that it’s better for Utah to beat Oregon on Saturday? Their odds for a Rose Bowl have to be greater, should they play an 11-1 Oregon team in Vegas. Utah wins that game? Rose Bowl. Utah loses to an 11-1 Oregon?…well, Rose Bowl. What keeps them from straight vanilla on Saturday?” -- @peterwatkins
A: This has been a popular topic of conversation since Nov. 2, when Oregon debuted at No. 4 in the initial College Football Playoff rankings and the possibility of someone other than the Pac-12 champion going to the Rose Bowl started coming into focus.
Yes, the ceiling for this Utah team is still the Rose Bowl, so let’s reset the scenarios first.
Utah can get to its first Rose Bowl by winning the Pac-12 championship game or, there is the possibility that Oregon wins out to get to 12-1, including two wins over Utah, remains in the top four of the CFP, and the Rose Bowl then selects Utah as the highest-ranked Pac-12 behind the Ducks. Yes, Utah could lose both Oregon games, including the Pac-12 championship game, beat Colorado in between, finish 8-5, and still get to the Rose Bowl.
With all of that on the table, there is a notion that Saturday’s game vs. Oregon really doesn’t matter. I do not necessarily disagree with this, but I do think this has been talked about in a vacuum and not enough in reality.
If Utah loses to Oregon and Arizona State beats Oregon State in Corvallis on Saturday, the Utes do not clinch the South, and you’re left needing to beat Colorado or have Arizona State lose to Arizona next week to clinch.
Wouldn’t you rather beat Oregon now and not have to sweat next week out?
Wouldn’t you rather be in control of things and not have to lean on Oregon State for help later in the evening?
Oregon curb-stomped Utah in the Pac-12 title game two years ago, costing the fifth-ranked Utes a spot in the College Football Playoff. Wouldn’t you rather end Oregon’s own hopes of a national championship on Saturday night at home?
All of this also assumes that, even at 8-5 with two losses to Oregon, Utah is still the highest-ranked Pac-12 team when the dust settles on Selection Sunday. Well, Arizona State is currently a betting favorite to finish 9-3 and second in the South. Don’t rule out the Sun Devils sneaking in there if they win out and finish as the South runner-up.
As for the ‘straight vanilla’ thing, yeah, I get that because you’re probably going to see the Ducks again in two weeks, but ‘straight vanilla’ is a bit strong. Not showing your entire hand, depending on how Saturday plays out, might make more sense.
CliffsNotes version: Wouldn’t you rather control your own path instead of hoping Oregon leaves the backdoor open for you? Furthermore, I promise you, everyone who says they’re OK with the Utes losing is going to be apoplectic if Oregon trucks them at Rice-Eccles.
Q: “Let’s assume the Utes win on Saturday. How does that impact the chances of beating the Ducks a second time in three weeks? Any recent examples from other conferences?” -- @Zach__Lloyd
A: Hard to say because the first game hasn’t been played yet. We don’t know how either side played, we don’t know who won, we don’t know what the injury situation is, we don’t know if Oregon still has a top-four CFP spot, etc.
This question is better-suited for probably after Saturday, but I will say, I have never subscribed to the thinking that it’s tough to beat a team twice in a season or three times in a season. If you’re better on that particular day than your opponent, that’s it.
As for recent examples, one that comes to mind without any research is 2019, when Oklahoma beat Baylor in Waco late in the regular season, then beat the Bears again three weeks later in the Big 12 championship game. Baylor coughed up a 31-10 halftime lead and Oklahoma scored 17 fourth-quarter points to steal the first game, then won the title game in overtime after Bears quarterback Charlie Brewer (remember him?) suffered a second-quarter concussion.
Q: “Do you see the offense or defense winning more games for Utah MBB this season?” -- Emailer Thomas
A: It’s really early, the sample size is way too small, and the competition hasn’t exactly been stiff, but nothing I’ve seen to this point has changed my mind as to what I think this Utah team will be.
Craig Smith’s Utah State teams were better-than-average defensive units and, without a fully-defined rotation just yet, this Utah team has shown signs that it is collectively willing to defend at a high level. Ultimately, guys will defend or they’re not going to play for Smith.
Offensively, I think there is reason for optimism, especially after Utah scored 70 points on a defensive-minded Abilene Christian. There are perimeter questions beyond David Jenkins Jr., but again, it is way too early to make any substantial judgments.
Q: “Do you believe Kyle Whittingham keeping hush on any/all injury information is truly a competitive advantage?” -- @utedaddy
A: College football coaches believe they’re holding onto state secrets when it comes to injuries. It is quite silly, and makes the media’s job harder. (No one has ever been concerned about the media’s job being made hard, but I digress.)
In the case of Whittingham, there have been times this season where he won’t directly answer an injury question, but he will lead you down the path and say enough where you can read in between the lines. Those instances have been far and few between lately, though.
I covered Rutgers when Chris Ash was the head coach. Ash’s tenure was an abomination, but one thing he said in relation to injuries before playing Urban Meyer-coached Ohio State one season stuck with me. I’ll paraphrase for the purposes of discussing Utah.
It is not Whittingham’s job to help his opponent prepare to play Utah. Unless the NCAA or the Pac-12 is going to mandate a weekly injury report, what does Whittingham gain by saying anything at all about who is injured?
I don’t blame Whittingham for generally being mum on injuries, even if it does sometimes feel like overkill.
Q: “What does the Maui Invitational selection process look like? Will the Runnin’ Utes ever make the field again after joining the Pac-12?” -- @purdie44
A: Without getting into every last nuance of how that sort of thing works, let’s say that what TV wants and having positive working relationships are two things that contribute to what the field looks like on an annual basis.
This season’s Maui field is actually pretty underwhelming by its own standards, but 2022 will include Arkansas, Arizona, Louisville and Ohio State, while 2023 has Duke and Gonzaga signed on.
Utah has to be relevant enough to command the attention of ESPN and Maui organizers. That’s first, before anything else. What is your relevance? Utah’s at the moment is nonexistent.
As an example, multiple sources have told me in recent months that Iona College will be part of the Battle 4 Atlantis field in 2023. The Gaels are perennial contenders in the MAAC, but they are relevant on a national scale because Rick Pitino is the head coach. That is how a program like Iona gets to a place like Maui or Atlantis.
Another point of reference: Utah was part of the original Battle 4 Atlantis field in 2020 before COVID-19 altered things. I was told pre-COVID that then-assistants Andy Hill and Tommy Connor leveraged relationships to help move that process along, but in fairness, when those conversations probably first started taking place, the Utes were not that far removed from a five-year run of three NIT trips wrapped around two NCAA Tournament appearances, including the Sweet 16 in 2015.
Q: “The basketball attendance is just sad. The team is performing, but the atmosphere is nothing to get excited about right now. There is not even a t-shirt toss. When purchasing tickets to the game it appears that most seats are sold, but there is a very low in-person turnout (even by the students). What is the AD doing to try and get people in the seats? (And don’t even get me started about the price of concessions right now).” -- @C_S_Man
A: It is perfectly fair to say that interest in Utah men’s basketball eroded late in Larry Krystkowiak’s tenure, and getting that interest back is not going to happen overnight.
The atmosphere in the arena is bad to start the season, no question about that. The average attendance over the first three games against Abilene Christian, Sacramento State, and Bethune Cookman, according to the athletic department, is 5,266. Uh, no, it isn’t. The actual average of fans in the Huntsman Center is less than that.
That early schedule is not exactly Murderers’ Row in terms of interest or competition, so trying to drag people to a game, especially a Saturday at 7:30 p.m. (Sacramento State) or a Monday at 8 p.m. (Bethune Cookman) is a tough ask.
This new Utah staff was handcuffed to a degree with how it constructed its schedule, which is how you wind up with two KenPom 300-plus teams showing up in Salt Lake City.
I think the fact there is a ton of interest in a good, contending football team may also have people not quite ready for basketball yet. All eyes are on football, and understandably so.
Of course, continuing to win will help matters, but moving forward, bringing a name opponent to town would also help the cause. The Big Ten/ACC/Pac-12 alliance, which is expected to begin as soon as next season for basketball, could be a boon in terms of early-season interest for basketball.
Are you really mad that there hasn’t been a t-shirt toss. I genuinely hope you are, because that’s funny.