Estimated read time: 3-4 minutes
SALT LAKE CITY — Two weeks removed from its best performance since joining the Pac-12, Utah football now faces the most important game in program history.
Bitter disappointment or extreme elation are the only options when the Utes square off against Oregon in the conference championship game on Friday in Las Vegas. It boils down to this: Rose Bowl or bust, there's no in between.
The pressure is on, unlike anything before. Embrace it or ignore it; either way is fine, but there's no escaping it.
In their penultimate home game this season, the Utes thoroughly dominated then-third ranked Oregon 38-7. Considering the stakes, the Utes had yet to clinch the South division and the Ducks were playing to maintain a spot in the four-team national playoff, the outcome was by far Utah's crowning achievement during its 11 years in the conference.
The ballyhooed match-up, broadcast on free television in prime time in the Eastern time zone on a Saturday night, was barely competitive. The celebrations before a delirious crowd at Rice-Eccles Stadium began on the final play of the first half when Britain Covey returned a punt 78 yards for a touchdown and extended on the field after the game.
Utah's spectacular show coincided with Kyle Whittingham becoming the winningest coach in program history on the night before his 62nd birthday. Red-clad Utes everywhere rejoiced.
The problem is, it all becomes merely a footnote unless the Utes get the same result in Allegiant Stadium. Losing the encore renders the first game almost meaningless in the grand scheme.
"We made a bunch of plays in that game two weeks ago that don't mean squat now," said Whittingham.
Utah has been here before, losing in 2018 and 2019 to Washington and Oregon, respectively, with an accompanying Rose Bowl berth on the line. Unlike this season, however, the Utes did not beat the North division winner earlier in the year.
Under the circumstances, both losses in the championship game were at least minimally understandable. Utah limped into the first game, playing without two future NFL players in quarterback Tyler Huntley and running back Zack Moss.
Without the two injured stars, the offense was rendered impotent in the 10-3 loss. Washington's lone touchdown came off an interception return on a bizarre interception that saw the ball bounce off a Utah receiver while he was on the ground.
Two years ago, Oregon ran the Utes off the field in a 37-15 win. NFL-bound quarterback Justin Herbert was too much for an overmatched defense.
No excuses this time around. By virtually every metric in conference play Utah is the best team in the Pac-12.
Don't expect another repeat of the first beat down. Oregon should have enough pride and talent to at least compete.
"It's a brand new game," said Oregon head coach Mario Cristobal.
The fact that Utah is even in this position, to begin with, ranks as an impressive achievement. The lofty status is the birthright of USC, a program that has dominated the conference for decades.
The Trojans, who have run through five head coaches in the last 11 years, have fallen mightily. But they did recapture the national spotlight this week by luring away Lincoln Riley from Oklahoma to become the new head coach.
Riley's coaching pedigree likely means a return to glory for USC, which has 34 appearances in the Rose Bowl. For Utah, as good as it looks now, there are no guarantees of future berths in the conference championship game with the Rose Bowl on the line.
By way of comparison, Arizona has failed to qualify for one Rose Bowl since joining the conference in 1978. Oregon State hasn't played in the game since 1965, which is six years after Cal made its last appearance.