Utah football worried about itself, not the other Pac-12 title contenders

There are still four frontrunners — Oregon, UCLA, USC, and Utah — legitimately vying for spots in the Pac-12 championship game.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) The team sings "Utah Man" during the celebration after the win. The Utes defeated the Oregon Ducks to win the 2021 Pac12 Football Championship title at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas, Dec 3, 2021.

There are five weeks left in the FBS regular season.

With that many games still to be played — and with most of the conference still technically alive for a spot in the Pac-12 championship game — trying to filter through the literally dozens of scenarios is a mostly useless exercise for now.

That is technically what the situation is. Realistically, the situation is much clearer.

There are four legitimate contenders vying for the two championship game spots on Dec. 2 at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas:

• No. 8 Oregon is the league’s lone unbeaten at 4-0 in conference play

• No. 10 USC is 4-1

No. 12 UCLA is 3-1

• No. 14 Utah also sits at 3-1

Are the Utes paying attention to what the rest of the league is doing right now?

“From a distance,” Utes fourth-year sophomore wide receiver Devaughn Vele said Monday. “We’re worried about ourselves and taking care of our business. We feel like if we’re able to take care of our business, then everything will work itself out. I’m not going to say you just ignore everything, you have no clue as to where people are, but it’s not our main focus. Our main focus is us trying to keep pace.”

Added fifth-year junior quarterback Cam Rising: “You just watch some games because you enjoy watching football, but you don’t worry about what’s going on too much. You just know you have to go out and handle business in-house and the rest will handle itself.”

Two-loss Washington has an ugly shootout loss to Arizona State on its resume from Oct. 8, while two-loss Oregon State was a fourth-and-7 defensive stop away late in the fourth quarter from toppling the Trojans on Sept. 24. The Huskies and Beavers can hang on to fading hopes of a trip to Las Vegas, but reality will set in for one of them when the two meet on Nov. 4 in Seattle.

As far as Utah goes, a potential early-December return to the desert and a defense of last season’s Pac-12 crown has met some hiccups, but remains very much alive following its 43-42 win over USC.

This is, of course, the Pac-12, where things never seem to go smoothly for anyone, but if the Utes can survive a tricky Thursday night trip to Washington State off a bye (8 p.m., Fox Sports 1), on paper, a reprieve is coming.

Utah closes its home schedule Nov. 5 vs. Arizona and Nov. 12 vs. Stanford. With those results and others across the conference pending, the Utes traveling to face Oregon at Autzen Stadium on Nov. 19 is likely to bring with it significant Pac-12 championship game implications. In the case of the Ducks, there could also be significant College Football Playoff indications involved.

After getting drubbed by then-No. 3 Georgia in Atlanta to open the season Sept. 3, Oregon has ripped off eight straight wins, including over a hot UCLA team in Eugene over the weekend.

It is worth noting that of the four contenders, Oregon’s remaining slate appears most favorable. The Ducks get Utah at home, and avoid USC entirely this season.

“As a team, we try not to think about that too much,” Vele said. “Obviously, we try to keep an eye out to see where the standings are, if we control our destiny, what we have to do to get to that championship game. We try to focus on who we’re playing this week, and not think about, ‘Well, if these guys beat those guys, we should be able to beat them.’ Once we start thinking like this, that’s when we start getting in our heads.”

Utah, and everyone else for that matter, is forced to deal with a new wrinkle to how the Pac-12 championship game matchup is decided.

When the league expanded to 12 teams with the addition of the Utes and Colorado in 2011, it went to six-team North and South Divisions. The two division winners played in the championship game, meaning you only had to worry about the other five teams in your division.

In May, the NCAA Division I Council announced it would relax restrictions on conference championship games, allowing conferences to determine the teams that would participate in their respective title game. The potential outcome of that decision was conferences eliminating divisions altogether.

Mere minutes after the NCAA announcement, that is exactly what the Pac-12 did, eliminating divisions while announcing that its championship game would be played between the teams with the two-highest conference winnings percentages.

In the 11 years the Pac-12 had divisions, including the COVID-shortened 2020 season, Utah won the South outright and played in the title game in 2018, 2019, and 2021. It shared the South crown in 2015 with USC, which had the head-to-head tiebreaker over the Utes and advanced to the title game.

“You’re just trying to win every week, that never changes, no matter the configuration of the league,” Whittingham said. “As I said before, I’m not a math major, but having to be better than 10 of the schools, rather than five of the schools to get to the championship game would make it a little more difficult, but everyone is in the same boat.

“The champion is going to be crowned by winning the game in Las Vegas, not whether you finish first or second. I don’t want to say it’s irrelevant, but really, the Pac-12 champ will be determined in Las Vegas, so you just have to get yourself to that game.”