SALT LAKE CITY — For different reasons based on expectations, players and coaches for the BYU and Utah football teams are buried in bitter disappointment after their most recent games.
Same old stuff for both teams, the theory goes. But hold on, before bailing on them, there is still time for redemption.
The Utes flunked the opportunity to take a stronghold on first place in the Pac-12 South Division, suffering a devastating loss to Arizona State last Saturday afternoon. Several hours later, the Cougars stalled at the 2-yard line in the final seconds of a 5-point loss to Boise State.
Unfortunately for the locals, history keeps repeating itself.
As all Utah fans know, since joining the Pac-12 the team has developed a pattern of struggling over the last month of the regular season. This year, with an improving offense, was supposed to have a different ending.
The Cougars, as they always do on the blue turf in Idaho, come tantalizingly close to beating Boise State only to fall short in frustrating fashion. Last week’s collapse ranks right there with a missed field goal at the buzzer and a failed 2-point conversion at the end of the game in recent years.
Still, respectively, both have much on the line to accomplish.
For BYU, this season was all about reaching the six-win mark to qualify for a bowl game. Anything else, realistically, was gravy.
At 4-5, with winnable games left against Massachusetts and New Mexico State, the Cougars are on schedule to make the postseason. The problem is, two early road wins at Arizona and Wisconsin led to a national ranking along with increasing BYU’s expectations for as many as eight wins and — for the hardcore dreamers — maybe even nine.
But the hard reality set in for the Cougars, who have lost four out of the last five games with the only win coming against struggling Hawaii. The losing skid, mostly due to subpar offense, has reset the goal back to the original hope.
Utah’s goal all season has centered on winning the South Division for the first time and in the process removing the stigma as the only South team to have never finished in first place. Even accounting for a bad game against the Sun Devils, which included losing quarterback Tyler Huntley to a season-ending injury, the Utes remain in contention to make the Pac-12 championship game.
With Huntley out, the task gets harder now that Utah has to turn to seldom-used redshirt freshman Jason Shelley. Coach Kyle Whittingham’s mantra of next man up will be put to a stiff test with the season on the line.
Playing into Utah’s favor is the South Division not having a dominant team. With three weeks remaining in the regular season — finishing with BYU this season, the Utes have two conference games left against Oregon and Colorado — four South teams are still in contention.
Only Arizona State does not need help to win the division. But the Sun Devils, who were 1-3 before beating Southern California and Utah the last two weeks, likely would have to win out at home against UCLA and then road games against Oregon and Arizona to take the South in Herm Edwards’ first year as coach.
If ASU loses once, the Utes can slide into first place by beating Oregon and Colorado. USC also is in decent position if Utah and ASU falter.
As long as the usual staples of a Whittingham team — strong defense, excellent special teams and a solid running game — play well, the Utes can finally have success in November. If not, the same song will play like a broken record.