Here’s a question not just for the 60,000 or so Utah fans headed to Pasadena for the Rose Bowl, but also for the hundreds of thousands of fans, millions, who will settle into their sofas or loungers in front of their big screens with a plate of ham sandwiches in one hand and a cold beverage in the other on Jan. 1 to watch the Utes play Ohio State.
Who will Urban Meyer be rooting for?
Nah, ball fake.
The real question: Do they have to win?
Does Utah have to win the freaking game to make it all worthwhile?
“Have to” is a relative way of saying it, but you get the idea.
The Utes don’t have to win in order for all y’all to keep breathing. They don’t have to win for the sun to rise on Sunday, Jan. 2, or for the crimson-colored world to remain on its axis or for life to retain its meaning.
But this is different, it feels different. It’s a season that has taken on more than just the norm, that now has an aura and essence surrounding an entire football team and its fan base, that has centered on rebounding from early competitive setbacks, a loss against an in-state rival and a week later against an old Mountain West Conference foe, a season that found a new burn after the proper starting quarterback was put in place, and, more significantly by about a billion miles, a season that has been dedicated to and enhanced in the memory of fallen teammates — young, talented, beloved people, TJ and AL — in the early stages of their blossom, stolen away by tragedy, taken to the unseen place, far or near, where the beloved go.
There’s a lot that’s gone on here, from football’s routine to earthly existence’s greatest challenge.
The Utes have been praised and commended, as they should be, for the way they’ve come together, straight into the cold wind of adversity, and achieved their goals, goals that never before have been reached.
You know what they are: A Pac-12 championship, earned by way of victory in the league title game, a win that had escaped them in two previous championship attempts, taken away one year by Washington and another by Oregon.
That was not the case this time, and it was fitting that the team Utah beat — Oregon — is the team that not only took them out last time around, but also the team that has become the conference’s marquee program.
Which is to indicate that the Utes’ rise to the top was no fluke, not an instance where they knocked off an opponent who happened to find a way to the title game, perhaps by getting hot at just the right moment, thereby providing good fortune smiling down upon them.
This was anything but that. The Utes beat the Ducks with gusto, twice, hammering home a point that had already become obvious in the previous weeks — that they are the best team in the Pac-12, the most worthy of the left-handed candidates for a berth to play the right-handed Buckeyes in the Rose Bowl.
One respected pundit who has covered the league for years, for long before it became the Pac-12 with Utah’s and Colorado’s invitation in 2010, and who conscientiously covers it still, predicted upon that invitation that it would take the Utes 25 years before they’d be good enough to conquer the conference and get to the Rose Bowl.
Utah, after coming close previously, and making it real now, more than halved that. In just a week, the Wildcats of Arizona, who have been in the league for 43 years, will be able to earnestly and honestly ask the Utes what it’s like to play in the old Bowl of Roses. They have never known such pleasure for themselves.
By that measure, the Utes are far ahead of schedule.
So, for them and their fans, they, you, have something big to celebrate on this New Year’s Day. It is an achievement that, given all the circumstances in and around it, blows past notable, barreling straight to remarkable. It’s an achievement that is well worth the 681-mile drive, maybe a mile or two farther from the University of Utah campus to the Rose Bowl itself.
Utah football has had its games of glory in the past — a win in the Fiesta Bowl, and that stadium that day was filled with red, spoiled only by a substandard Pitt team that had no business being on the same field with the Utes. And the Sugar Bowl, a memorable contest that forced Alabama and its fans — and its coach — to respect the brand of football played by Utah. On that occasion, as the chunks of shredded paper floated down from the ceiling to the SuperDome’s turf, Utes team leader Brian Johnson looked around and said, “We were the only ones who believed we could do this.”
He did and the Utes did.
Now, the Granddaddy.
Back to the question: Do the Utes have to win this thing, or is what they’ve already done, getting there, enough?
Ask them, and they’ll tell you just getting there is never enough.
While Utah football is respected by everyone now — and if it isn’t, somewhere in the far backward reaches of regional ignorance, pay no mind to that — there’s always more respect to gain.
It is important for the Utes to beat Ohio State, not just to line up against the Buckeyes on the green underneath and in the warm sunshine overhead in the Arroyo Seco, all while a largely frozen country looks on in envy. It’s important because Ohio State is an iconic college football brand, and defeating it means something. It’s important because the Utes are making the attempt to win not just for themselves and their fans, but for a couple of comrades, cheering them on, regardless of result, from the Great Beyond.
Above all that, there’s another important reason for the Utes to go ahead and become Rose Bowl champions. Because …