SALT LAKE CITY — Some 100 miles north, in the midst of destroying Arizona on the field, Utah’s football team suffered a loss off the field that it had zero control over.
Up the road from Tucson, Oregon was hurting — and maybe even ending — Utah’s chances at making college football’s four-team playoff. In Tempe, Arizona State stunned the Ducks to eliminate their dream of getting in the playoff and, in the process, denying Utah an opportunity to beat a highly ranked team in the Pac-12 championship game.
With one game left in the regular season, the Utes only need to beat underdog Colorado to play in the conference final for the second consecutive year. But now, thanks to Oregon’s loss, Utah’s potential glossy record may not be good enough.
In attempt to get a Pac-12 team in the playoff for the first time in three years, Utah and Oregon were joined at the hip. The plan to get the winner in the playoff — Oregon has already clinched the North Division — died in the desert.
The situation speaks to the inequity in college football, which plays to different rules depending on the conference. The Pac-12 plays nine conference games, one more than the Southeastern Conference, adding to the difficulty of going through the conference unscathed.
Since the conference expanded to 10 teams for the 1978 season, only eight teams have won every conference game. But since the Pac-12 began playing nine conference games starting in 2006, only Oregon in 2010 has gone 9-0.
By comparison, the SEC has had six teams go undefeated in conference games since 2009. With one game remaining, Louisiana State is 7-0 this season.
“It doesn’t really matter what the number is as long as the whole country is in the same boat,” said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. “I think that’s where it needs to be equitable and it needs to be uniform because there’s so much at stake. There’s so much at stake the way the playoffs are structured right now that it’s just not a level playing field when you have a different amount of conference games.”
Three traditional powerhouse teams — LSU, Ohio State and Clemson — are near locks to make the playoff. Utah is in the next in line, along with Georgia, Alabama and Oklahoma.
In addition to hurting Utah, Oregon’s loss strengthens the case for other teams.
“The Ducks’ loss also opens the door for Alabama, Oklahoma, or possibly a second Big Ten team if Minnesota were to upset Ohio State in the conference title game,” wrote Heather Dinich, one ESPN’s leading college football analysts. “It also means the Pac-12 can have a two-loss champ if the Ducks win, and will somewhat devalue a win for Utah because the Ducks will now drop in the ranking.”
If Alabama is a contender, so are the Utes. Based on this season alone, the Crimson Tide don’t offer a resume that points to automatically overriding Utah.
If the Utes get in, could they compete — and even beat — any of the aforementioned perennial powers? The answer, succinctly, this year is yes.
Taking emotion out of it, look at the lineup Utah can put on the field. Particularly on defense, this team is loaded.
Name a team that has eight players on defense with legitimate NFL prospects. Whittingham believes seven of his seniors on defense have NFL credentials, along with junior cornerback Jaylon Johnson, who has repeatedly stated his intention to enter the draft after this season.
Playing a soft nonconference schedule, which included no Power Five opponents, the Utes needed help from the Pac-12. Ranked No. 6 in the playoff poll, Utah has gone 10-1 on the strength of drilling a slew of lousy teams.
The Pac-12, which has only three teams with at least eight wins, is a collection of mediocrity. At this point, Utah’s marquee wins are against 7-4 BYU and four 6-5 teams (Washington, Cal, ASU and Washington State.)
But don’t penalize Utah for Oregon’s loss in the desert. As the Utes showed two months ago in Los Angeles, going undefeated in the Pac-12 is rare.
“It’s very difficult, especially in a conference like the Pac-12 where it’s very balanced and you’ve got a lot of depth in this league,” Whittingham said. “It’s a tough task.”
Utah deserves credit for owning every opponent since the USC loss. Over their current seven-game winning streak, the Utes have outscored opponents by a combined score of 263-51.
Obviously, they are awesome on both sides of the football.
Traditionally strong on defense, Utah finally has an offense that has shredded seven consecutive opponents since the team lost to USC in September. The combination quarterback Tyler Huntley and running back Zack Moss, along all the other facets of the team, would make Utah a formidable opponent against any of the playoff teams.