Is a 9-win season good enough for Kyle Whittingham’s Utes?

Utes will close the regular season Saturday at Colorado, with getting back to the Pac-12 championship game still a possibility.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Utah Utes sing the fight song with after the Ute's defeated the Stanford Cardinals, 42-7, in PAC-12 football action at Rice-Eccles Stadium, on Saturday, Nov. 12, 2022.

There were big expectations for the University of Utah football team when this season began.

Armed with a slew of key returners, a No. 7 preseason ranking by the Associated Press, and selected by the voting media as a heavy favorite to repeat as Pac-12 champion, Kyle Whittingham, Cam Rising, and Brant Kuithe were unafraid to say the College Football Playoff was an attainable goal.

The CFP hype is long gone.

The Pac-12 championship hope is in peril.

With the expectations being what they were, a question: is a nine-win season good enough for Whittingham and the Utes at this point?

“We’ve been in the league 12 years now, and to have a 7-2 [conference] record be considered something of a disappointment is probably a compliment in a way,” Whittingham said this week. “We’re not focused on that, we’re trying to repeat as conference champs, but nine games, if we’re able to get to that, it’s still more than 90% of the country.”

Yes, the Utes can still get back to Las Vegas despite Saturday’s 20-17 loss at Oregon. But they need to win at Colorado, plus get three other results to break their way.

Whether or not Utah ends up in the Pac-12 championship game, a win on Saturday in Boulder (2 p.m., Pac-12 Networks) will polish off a 9-3 regular season, including a 7-2 mark in the Pac-12. It would be the program’s fifth nine-win regular season in the last seven (excluding the COVID season) dating back to 2015.

Whittingham’s back-of-the-napkin math regarding the other 90% of the country in the middle was slightly off, but that hardly matters. The 18th-year head coach’s point there was valid. The majority of the country’s 131 FBS teams would sign on immediately for the season Utah has had.

Of the 65 Power Five programs in the country, plus independent Notre Dame, only 20 of them either have at least nine wins, or are going for win No. 9. Specifically in the Pac-12, which currently has half of its teams ranked in the latest College Football Playoff rankings, including No. 14 Utah, three teams sit with at least nine wins, with another three aiming for No. 9 this weekend.

But if you’re still trying to decide if 9-3 overall and 7-2 in the Pac-12 is a successful season, some more context might help.

The Utes were a handful of plays away from beating Florida on Sept. 3, and another small handful away from beating Oregon last weekend. They instead lost both games by three points. The third loss, Oct. 8 at UCLA, stands as the only time this season Utah was completely outplayed for four quarters.

By the time Utah showed up in Pasadena last month, Kuithe was out for the season, and running back Tavion Thomas’ role had been reduced while dealing with personal issues. By the time the Utes showed up in Eugene, Rising had been dealing with a left knee issue for more than a month, while other injuries, severe or otherwise, to depth-chart players had mounted.

One might argue that, given what’s gone on, including Rising sitting vs. Washington State and Bryson Barnes quarterbacking the Utes to victory that night in Pullman, nine regular-season wins is a strong accomplishment.

Still, other observers are not going to want to hear the excuses (though in fairness, Whittingham has not made many despite what has been a trying season in some respects).

Ultimately, as Utah goes in search of win No. 9 — with opportunities for at least 10 via a bowl game, and maybe 11 if luck favors them, coming down the pike — beauty is in the eye of the beholder as people consider what this season has been.

“It’s been a year of a lot of positives, and obviously some negatives, but we have a chance to win our ninth ballgame and that’s where our focus is,” Whittingham said. “We have the chance to cap the season off with a pretty decent record if we take care of business, and we have a chance, I don’t want to say backdoor because it wouldn’t really be a backdoor, but mathematically, get back into the championship game.”