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SALT LAKE CITY — Blink during the upcoming holiday break and you might miss Utah's final game of the regular season — a Friday afternoon tilt against a somewhat forced rivalry of Pac-12 region partner Colorado at Rice-Eccles Stadium.
The Buffaloes have won only four games in Karl Dorrell's second season as head coach and will be missing at least two of their best receivers, Branden Rice (injury) and La'Vontae Shenault (transfer portal), and will likely be without several other players on defense, though the team might get star linebacker Nate Landman back from injury.
It's a scenario where Colorado (4-7, 3-5 Pac-12) is trying to hold pieces together for one last game of the season, even if there's no bowl eligibility or other postseason factors at play for either team.
Utah (8-3, 7-1 Pac-12) already cliched the South division title and awaits a North division opponent in Las Vegas next week, so there's no possibility for Colorado to play spoiler — not this time. The Utes are 24-point favorites at home in the last game at Rice-Eccles Stadium this season, and barring a letdown there's not much on paper to suggest Utah won't come close to that mark.
It would be easy to overlook the Friday (2 p.m. MT, FOX) game given the circumstances.
That attitude, though, isn't shared by the players and coaching staff who want to closeout the regular season on a high note as the team continues to build toward a potential Rose Bowl appearance. Letting the foot off the gas pedal for the last game of the season is a dangerous game to play and one Utah has no interest in entertaining.
"We ain't done yet," Utah record-breaking running back Tavion Thomas said after his team dismantled then-No. 3 Oregon Saturday. "We've got to keep going."
And more than anything, it's an opportunity to honor the seniors that have given their all to the program over the years and will be playing their last home game of the season. Regardless of the circumstances or Utah's opponent, it's another opportunity for Utah to get a win in front of family, friends and a few 52,000-plus fans ready to celebrate the Utes.
Utah currently has 10 players listed as seniors on the roster, but due to the NCAA's "bonus year" designation for all players due to COVID-19 in the 2020 season, sophomores and juniors have the potential to leave the university and pursue post-collegiate avenues, such as the NFL draft next spring.
That leaves the university guessing, in many ways, on the number of players that will be honored Friday as part of the senior day festivities. Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham said he expected anywhere between 15-17 players to walk as part of that senior celebration, though it could be more or less, and some players that walk may decide to return for one more season.
It's also why the university won't be announcing any of the names ahead of game day as players attempt to make a decision on their future.
"We're not going to — in case they changed their mind between now and then I just don't want to screw things up with that," Whittingham said. "Some of them are still deciding; it's not 100% set now which ones are going to walk."
On such player, junior linebacker Devin Lloyd, is already committed to leaving the university early and will skip his final year of eligibility to pursue a shot at the NFL after accepting a Senior Bowl invite last week. Lloyd, the two-time Butkus Award finalist, is considered one of the top linebackers in the country and is already generating first-round draft grades in recent projections.
And though his future is likely set, Lloyd said Monday that it's a difficult thing to decide to leave the university where he grew into the player he is today.
"I haven't really put too much time in thinking about, but it's definitely going to be tough," he said. "Just investing so much time to this university and everything that has gone on while I've been here. I've matured a lot and grown a lot as a man, and I've made so many memories — countless memories, countless relationships — that will last a lifetime. It's definitely going to be hard, but I'm really just focused on enjoying every moment I have here."
Prior to the start of the season, junior receiver Britain Covey — yes, he miraculously still has one year of eligibility left — said the 2021 season would likely be his last, though he was keeping his options open. On Monday, Covey said he'll be walking with seniors on Friday but that he still hadn't made up his mind on his future plans.
That decision, he said, will come after the Pac-12 Championship game but before the Utah's bowl game — most likely the Rose Bowl or Alamo Bowl.
"I haven't decided yet," he said. 'I will go out and walk as a senior, just in case, but that's a decision that I told my family I'll make before the bowl game but after the Pac-12 Championship. I just want to focus on the next couple of weeks, but I will walk just in case."
Other players, like Mika Tafua, a junior defensive end, have not made up their mind yet about whether they'll walk or what their future holds. A lot of that will likely depend on the grades the NFL gives interested players — a projected snapshot of what round out of seven the player could be selected in should they pursue that path.
All in all, it's a conversation the players have had amongst each other but one they're not readily discussing with so much of the season still left to play for — Colorado now and then the Pac-12 Championship after that.