Pac-12 title game picture will become much clearer after Utes, Ducks meet at Autzen

No. 10 Utah and No. 12 Oregon kick off at 8:30 p.m. MT.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes head coach Kyle Whittingham greets Utah quarterback Cameron Rising (7) as he is introduced on Senior Night, before PAC-12 football action between the Utah Utes and the Stanford Cardinal at Rice-Eccles Stadium, on Saturday, Nov. 12, 2022.

Eugene, Ore. • The University of Utah finds itself deep into November, having done enough for the right to not only still be playing meaningful football, but to retain everything it earned a season ago.

If the 10th-ranked Utes (8-2, 6-1 Pac-12) can walk into Autzen Stadium on Saturday night and defeat No. 12 Oregon (8-2, 6-1 Pac-12), they will be in prime position to advance back to the Pac-12 championship game on Dec. 2 in Las Vegas.

Beyond Oregon, Utah would need to win its regular-season finale at Colorado on Nov. 26, but given how the Buffaloes have played this fall, that would likely, rightfully be considered a formality. There are roads back to Vegas for Utah if it loses to the Ducks on Saturday, but that is beside the point.

The Utes are playing a high-profile, high-stakes November game on Saturday night, a fact that, frankly, has become the norm as they have risen to power in the Pac-12 over the last five seasons.

“It’s extremely gratifying, and it speaks to the talent, and competitiveness of our players,” Whittingham said of most of the last nine seasons featuring his team being in the Pac-12 title hunt. “If you go back and look at why we have those types of players, it’s because our assistants do a great job bringing in the right type of player, both from a talent standpoint, an attitude standpoint, a character standpoint.

“We’ve been in the hunt for a lot of years, deep into the season, and again, when you have good players, good things will take place.”

When the Pac-12 decided to do away with divisions and have its football championship game be played between the teams with the two-highest conference winning percentages, it meant that, instead of worrying about the other five teams in your division, you were worrying about all 11 teams. That meant that the margin for error across nine conference games would be smaller than it already was.

On Oct. 8, Utah lost at UCLA, eliminating the margin for error with six regular-season games to go. Since then, every week has essentially been a must-win, and Utah has answered the call. On the heels of the loss to the Bruins, the Utes came from 14 down twice to deliver USC its only first and only loss. They won at Washington State without Cam Rising. They smashed Arizona, they did the same to Stanford.

“We’ve had our backs to the wall ever since UCLA, and every single game has been a pressure game,” Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham said earlier this week. “That’s what you want to play in. If you’re not playing in pressure games, that means you’re irrelevant.

“You don’t want to be irrelevant, you want your backs to be against the wall, or each game mattering and critical, which is the situation we’re in. We welcome that, our guys have handled it very well since UCLA, four or five games.”

With key injuries and, in the case of Tavion Thomas, personal issues being a factor, Utah has answers for the better part of five weeks with a potential Pac-12 title defense not guaranteed, if not teetering. It needs another on Saturday to secure the right to defend that Pac-12 title.

“That is something we don’t look at as anything but a big positive,” Whittingham said. “There’s a reason it’s a pressure game, a big game, because you’ve earned that right to have it be that. That’s something we welcome.”