Estimated read time: 4-5 minutes
SALT LAKE CITY — It was always Rose Bowl or bust for the Utah football team this season.
Anything less was always going to be a disappointment. And while there was no guarantee Utah would get there with others in the South division perceived as the favorites and Oregon considered the Pac-12's playoff team, Utah was wired differently this year.
The season started out with disappointment by losing two of the team's three nonconference games. And then real tragedy struck again with the loss of Aaron Lowe.
It's well documented that all of that shaped a football team that banded together and believed in themselves. But the Rose Bowl was still very much in contention and nothing was going to stop the Utes.
Over the next 10 games only Oregon State broke through and delivered Utah a conference loss, but that pushed the team even harder as more doubters weighed in and saw the team as only benefitting from a down Pac-12.
But on Friday night in the Pac-12 championship game, in another blowout win over the Oregon Ducks, Utah made history: the Utes had won the conference and were going to the Rose Bowl for the first time. Next to being selected for the College Football Playoff, Utah landed in arguably the most prominent and well known bowl in the country, and was paired with one of the biggest brands in the sport, Ohio State.
What better way to end the season?
Utah deserved the moment Friday and it all came to a head as joyful tears were shed and deep hugs were exchanged on the field of Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas. Surrounding the team in Rice-Eccles South was some 30,000 Utes fans soaking it all in and congratulating their team on a job well done — much like the scene in a feel-good sports movie where the hero overcomes adversity to win in the end.
"Everybody in Salt Lake is elated to be heading down to Southern California for the Rose Bowl — obviously our first trip. We're excited to come down and experience it," Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham said Sunday. "I've got a lot of buddies that are old SC guys who've been in the Rose Bowl several times and they say there's nothing that compares to it, and so we're really looking forward to it.
"The entire Salt Lake community is — we'll travel well. It's something that the community is very fired up about."
HISTORY MADE— Utah Football (@Utah_Football) December 5, 2021
The Utes are Champions of the Pac12 pic.twitter.com/zsPkvyb6QG
Outside the playoff, a bowl game is a glorified exhibition game; but the Rose Bowl is the pinnacle of the sport, the Granddaddy of Them All. It's a highly-coveted destination that Utah believes will set the program up for even bigger opportunities. It's all got to start somewhere and that's what Utah hopes can happen with the program's first Rose Bowl.
Under Whittingham's tenure at Utah, the Utes have already seen the program rise to that of a consistent contender in the Pac-12, but that's far from the program's desires. For Whittingham, earning a spot in the Rose Bowl is "the next step" Utah football has to take to move forward.
From "BCS Busters" to the most recent Rose Bowl acceptance, Utah wants to be seen as a consistent powerhouse team in the sport and not just an occasional contender.
"It's just a great opportunity for a program," Whittingham said. "It's the next step in the evolution of our program, getting to the Rose Bowl, because of course that's most years what the Pac-12 champion gets to experience. We've been to the Pac-12 championship game three years now and this is the first time we've been able to get over that hump and become the champions.
"It was the next step and our next goal as a program. We've only been at the Power Five level 10 years now — I guess it's 11 years — and so it's just something that we've been shooting for and had our sights set on for a number of years, and we finally were able to get over that mountain. We're very excited to have that opportunity."
Eleven seasons after Utah accepted a bid to join the Pac-12, they've done what even two other teams — Arizona and Colorado — in the conference have never done. It may be the first Rose Bowl, but Utah hopes it won't be the last.