Story by Jon Wilner
STANFORD — Utah took a giant, overpowering stride toward its third Pac-12 South title in four years, bludgeoning Stanford 52-7 on Friday night and rushing for eight bajillion yards — sorry, it was only 441 — in the process.
Thanks to head-to-head victories over division rivals, the Utes (6-3/5-1) must win only two of their final three games for the title to become official.
That seems inevitable given that they play both Arizona (0-8/0-5) and Colorado (2-6/1-4), the worst teams in the Conference and two of the worst in the country.
So if Utah’s division fate is effectively assured, what about its postseason destination?
What about the Rose Bowl?
Well, the Utes could earn their first-ever trip to the Granddaddy the old-fashioned way — by winning the conference championship.
Or they could get there the post-modern way — by not winning the conference championship.
Let’s say No. 4 Oregon runs the table, beats Utah in the title game, and jumps into the College Football Playoff — a combination of events that seems unlikely for a variety of reasons but cannot be discounted.
In that case, the Rose Bowl would have itself a vacancy.
Would bowl officials automatically select the Utes if they have captured the South and finished as the conference runner-up?
Several factors would enter the calculation, including the ranking of the second-place teams in the North and South divisions.
Remember, the Utes already have three losses and would, in this scenario, add two more defeats to their total — both against Oregon. (The Ducks can only reach the playoff by winning the rest of their games.)
So the Rose Bowl would have a vacancy and five-loss Utah as an option.
The Rose Bowl’s standing policy is the following:
“Should a team from the Big Ten or Pac-12 be selected to go to the College Football Playoff, the Tournament of Roses will traditionally select the next-highest CFP-ranked team from that conference.”
If the Utes have five losses, they won’t be ranked. But the runner-up in the North might be.
However, the Rose Bowl policy includes a caveat, according to Management Committee Chair Scott Jenkins:
“If the next-highest ranked team is in a ‘cluster’ of teams, meaning there is another team or teams from the same Conference ranked within several spots of each other, the Tournament of Roses will select the team from that cluster that will result in the best possible matchup for the Rose Bowl Game.”
That “cluster” could include teams close to each other in the rankings — or a group of unranked teams.
The selection process would take the following factors into account:
— The last time a team played in the Rose Bowl Game
— Head-to-head results
— Regular-season schedule
— Overall record
— Opponents played
— Past playoff or bowl appearances and performance
— Historical matchups
In other words, bowl officials have the flexibility to select the replacement team that makes the most sense, so long as there isn’t a wide disparity in the rankings.
(Any decision would be made in consultation with Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff.)
As we see it, the unranked Utes would receive clear priority over any teams from the South. After all, they beat each contender handily.
The same would seemingly be true if Washington State finished second in the North because Utah won that head-to-head, as well.
What if the Rose Bowl must choose between five-loss Utah and four-loss Oregon State, with both teams unranked and the Beavers have won the head-to-head matchup?
That could be problematic for the Utes.
But that’s seemingly the only scenario in which Utah would get squeezed out of the Rose Bowl vacancy left by Oregon’s ascent to the playoff.
Of course, the Utes could eliminate any and all uncertainty and win the conference championship.
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