Story by Jon Wilner
In 10 minutes, Utah transformed its Saturday, its season and its postseason.
In 10 minutes that spanned the end of the second quarter and the beginning of the third, the Utes blasted through USC for 267 yards, four touchdowns, an insurmountable lead and one indisputable statement: They are back.
The victory created ample margin for error as Utah chases its seventh consecutive bowl berth (in non-pandemic years).
Excluding last winter, the Utes haven’t been home for the holidays since back in 2013, at the end of the multi-year roster fortification process that followed their transition into the Pac-12.
Their path looked treacherous in late September after a loss to Brigham Young — we didn’t think that was possible — and an overtime defeat at San Diego State.
But efficient quarterback play and an improved defense fueled consecutive victories over Washington State and USC, thereby altering the postseason calculation:
The Utes need just three wins in their final seven games to qualify — a stretch that includes dates with struggling Colorado and Arizona.
Sweep those South cellar-dwellers, and the Utes would need one more victory, anywhere, against anybody, to secure the six victories needed for qualification.
But why stop at six?
A victory Saturday over Arizona State would leave Utah as the Pac-12’s only undefeated team in conference play, with head-to-head wins over USC and ASU and only one other legitimate contender in the division: UCLA, which visits Salt Lake City at the end of the month.
Win Saturday, and by the close of October, the Utes just might have full control of the South and a bowl berth locked up.
To the projections (with home and road games remaining) …
Rose Bowl (vs. Big Ten)
Team: Oregon (4-1/1-1)
Home games (four): Cal, Colorado, Washington State, Oregon State
Road games (three): UCLA, Washington, Utah
Comment: In case you lost track of Ohio State’s results, know this: The Buckeyes have won their last two Big Ten games by a combined score of 118-30. That’s good news for the Ducks, who would win a resume standoff against OSU for the final playoff berth if both teams finished 12-1.
Alamo Bowl (vs. Big 12)
Team: Arizona State (5-1/3-0)
Home games (three): Washington State, USC, Arizona
Road games (three): Utah, Washington, Oregon State
Comment: The Sun Devils are the best team in the conference right now. But we’re not quite convinced they will be the best team in the conference on the first Friday of December. Beware the early peak.
Las Vegas Bowl (vs. Big Ten)
Team: Utah (3-2/2-0)
Home games (four): Arizona State, UCLA, Oregon, Colorado
Road games (three): Oregon State, Stanford, Arizona
Comment: Utah against either of the Michigan teams at Allegiant Stadium would be a fascinating matchup given their smash-mouth similarities.
Holiday Bowl (vs. ACC)
Team: Oregon State (4-2/2-1)
Home games (three): Utah, Stanford, Arizona State
Road games (three): Cal, Colorado, Oregon
Comment: There is no remaining game the Beavers cannot win but only one remaining game they cannot lose (Colorado). So this resurgence could go any number of ways.
Sun Bowl (vs. ACC)
Team: UCLA (4-2/2-1)
Home games (three): Oregon, Colorado, Cal
Road games (three): Washington, Utah, USC
Comment: Starting with the Sun Bowl, teams are slotted into games based on conference record. At the top of the lineup, the bowls can pick Team Y over Team X as long as there is no more than a one-game difference in conference record.
LA Bowl (vs. Mountain West)
Team: Stanford (3-3/2-2)
Home games (four): Washington, Utah, Cal, Notre Dame
Road games (two): Washington State and Oregon State
Comment: The heavy load of remaining home games means nothing. Stanford has been very good on the road since the middle of last season and holds little home-field advantage. Critical game this week in Pullman.
ESPN Bowl (Gasparilla, Armed Forces or First Responders)
Team: USC (3-3/2-3)
Home games (three): Arizona, UCLA, Brigham Young
Road games (three): Notre Dame, Arizona State, Cal
Comment: Only Arizona is a lock, and the situation could deteriorate quickly. But we didn’t need the Hubble to spot three more wins, only a good set of binoculars.
Team: Washington (2-3/1-1)
Home games (four): UCLA, Oregon, ASU, Washington State
Road games (three): Arizona, Stanford, Colorado
Comment: The presence of Arizona and Colorado on the upcoming schedule lies at the heart of our projection for the Huskies. The team we watched take Oregon State to the wire is good enough to thump the Wildcats and Buffaloes and find two more victories somewhere, somehow.
Team: Arizona (0-5/0-2)
Home games (three): Washington, Cal, Utah
Road games (four): Colorado, USC, Washington State, ASU
Comment: With quarterback Jordan McCloud out for the season, there’s a better chance the losing streak extends into 2022 than ends in 2021.
Team: Cal (1-4/0-2)
Home games (three): Colorado, Oregon State, USC
Road games (four): Oregon, Arizona, Stanford, UCLA
Comment: If the Bears sneak into the postseason — and we haven’t given up on them entirely — their salvation would be the cross-division schedule. Drawing Colorado and Arizona instead of Utah and ASU gives them a flicker of hope.
Team: Colorado (1-4/0-2)
Home games (three): Arizona, Oregon State, Washington
Road games (four): Cal, Oregon, UCLA, Utah
Comment: Scoring 27 points in two conference games is bad, but this is worse: Only 17 were scored when the outcomes were in doubt against USC and ASU. The other 10 came in garbage time.
Team: Washington State (3-3/2-2)
Home games (three): Stanford, Brigham Young, Arizona
Road games (three): ASU, Oregon, Washington
Comment: As we assessed WSU’s postseason pathways, it became increasingly clear that Saturday’s tangle with Stanford is the tipping-point game. Win, and the bowl math looks like basic algebra. Lose, and it’s advanced calculus.
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