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Gordon Monson: Utah in the Pac-12 championship game is a hard habit to break

The Utes took the long way to reach the title game for the fourth time in five years.

i(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes running back Micah Bernard (2) runs for a touchdown as the University of Utah hosts USC, NCAA football in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Oct. 15, 2022.

It’s been noted before in this corner, in others, as well, and it should be highlighted again and again in the few days ahead.

It deserves it.

Even if deserve’s got nothing to do with it — just ask Husky fans — this shouldn’t quietly pass in the night. On the other hand, if it becomes so commonplace that it’s expected, with a sniff, a shrug and a ho-hum, like, no big deal, maybe that’s even more noteworthy.

The fact that Utah football has made getting to the Pac-12 championship game a habit.

The Utes have qualified in 2018, 2019, 2021 and now in 2022. One word: remarkable. The only interruption the Utes endured in that string was in 2020, the COVID season in which the championship was … how should we say it, compromised? Yes, compromised. That was a five-game regular season that was clearly messed up and messed over.

Utah lost the title game in those first two years, the initial trip at Levi’s Stadium to Washington and the second one there to Oregon, before beating the Ducks in Vegas last December. As everyone knows, they’ll face USC this time around on Friday night.

Those Washington fans who are upset that the 10-2 Huskies got left out of the party and 9-3 Utah did not, by way of a fortunate set of happenings this past Saturday, may have a point, but ultimately the point is … pointless. Nothing’s changing. Utah beat Colorado, which was no surprise. But then, Oregon State defeated highly ranked Oregon and Washington took out Washington State on the Cougars’ home field, all of which had to occur for the Utes to make it.

Lady Luck sometimes has a twisted sense of humor. And the Utes were favored to twist, the Huskies disfavored to shout.

In the first season in which the Pac-12 had no divisions and therefore no division champs, the openings then were handed to the 8-1 (in league) Trojans and the 7-2 (in league) Utes. The Huskies were 7-2, too, as was Oregon, but Utah made it via tiebreakers.

Those angry Washington supporters should remember that the Huskies lost to Arizona State — embarrassing, the Sun Devils’ only other conference win was over Colorado — and to UCLA — not embarrassing — while their best win was a three-pointer over Oregon. Utah’s losses were to UCLA — not embarrassing — and to Oregon — not embarrassing — and their best win was over USC, the only defeat suffered by the Trojans, in or out of conference.

The Utes didn’t make the rules, even if they subsequently benefited from them.

Part of the remarkableness in what Utah has done in four of the last five seasons stems from its humble launch to them.

Everybody around here remembers the Utes’ transition from the Mountain West to the newly formed Pac-12 and the way Utah was viewed by others in the league at that formation. It was as though the highly self-esteemed Pac-family had invited in its buck-toothed, banjo-playing, dungaree-wearing, whiskey-swilling cousins from outback along that thar Wasatch Range somewheres.

And competitively speaking, there was some truth to the elite attitude.

Either way, it didn’t take as long as some thought for the rawboned Utes to smooth their rough edges, to better their recruiting and their depth, and ascend to their current station and status as one of the league’s most respected and valued entities. I covered Utah’s first Pac-12 game in 2011, ironically enough, against the USC Trojans, a 23-14 loss at the Coliseum that announced the Utes’ presence. A blocked field goal in the closing seconds of that game, one that resulted in a USC touchdown, was the beginning and, at that time, the difference.

Thereafter, the Utes leaned and lurched as they climbed. They had league records of 4-5, 3-6, 2-7.

Then 5-4, 6-3, 5-4, and 3-6.

Then 6-4, 8-2, 3-2, 9-1.

And now, 7-2 heading into Friday night.

Kyle Whittingham has repeatedly said what has happened to Utah is gradual improvement not just in recruiting, but in recruiting depth, and in the ongoing development of the talent the Utes get.

While the days of unbeaten seasons — 2004, 2008 — in the Mountain West have evaporated, the overall quality of Utah football is no longer disputed, not locally, not nationally. Everybody in the know knows that the Utes are almost always difficult to play, difficult to beat. They’re talented and well coached, even if flaws still appear now and again.

They are the buck-toothed cousins no more.

They now sit near the head of the Pac-12 table, all of which makes this championship game’s tone and tenor that much more fascinating. It’s USC, the longtime premier program in the conference, a program so premier in its eyes, that it took it upon itself to remove itself from that Pac-12 table, headed soon to the Big Ten, against the new guys, the newer guys, set on throwing the traditionalists to the side now.

Utah handled the Trojans in Salt Lake City to the tune of 43-42 on October 15, the only blemish on USC’s pretty face this season. Now the Utes hope to keep the Proactiv wiped away, adding another pimple, this one, were it to surface, knocking the Trojans out of the College Football Playoff.

There are two primary questions hovering over whether the Utes can pull that off. The first is, Cam Rising’s health. He played at an almost-unbelievable level in the first game, throwing for 415 yards and two touchdowns, running for three more scores, including the game-winning two-point conversion near game’s end. Rising hurt his knee in that win, and hasn’t played up to his usual heights in recent weeks. He’s been good, just not great. Can he be that again? And the second, USC quarterback Caleb Williams’ containment. Will the Heisman favorite go wild on Utah’s defense?

Whittingham and his players have said they obviously are pleased to make the conference championship game — again. But, even more, there’s their important business of winning it — again.

In 2022, will they be around the head of that aforementioned table or will they be at the head of it? That seat order is theirs to arrange on Friday night.

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