Previewing Utah's path to the Pac-12 title game

I'm going to start this post out by saying that I do not think Utah will represent the Pac-12 South in the inaugural conference title game. I don't think that's too dramatic of a position and I'm sure many of you will actually agree with me. I'll explain my doubt in this post outlining, ironically, the way they could win the Pac-12 South.

So while I'm not betting it will happen or expecting it will happen, it is a possibility. That's what I'm going to discuss - the way to that possibility. 

If Utah is going to win the Pac-12 South, they've got to win every conference home game. That sounds awfully simple, but ask any former Pac-10 fan how easy it is to go an entire season without losing at least once at home. 

This is why I think the Utes are unlikely to win the division, because losing just one home game would most likely require them to find another win somewhere on the road against SC, Arizona, Cal or Washington State. I'm not saying they need to win all those games, but they probably need to produce at least a 3-1 record to be in position to claim the Pac-12 South.

I know that sounds steep and it's possible, with the difficulty of Arizona State's schedule, that they could feasibly win with a 7-2 conference record, however, that assumes a lot of things, like they'll beat SC or Arizona and right now, I'm not sure they'll win either of those games. 

If they lose both, and can't win out at home, they'll have a 6-3 conference record at best and it becomes more and more difficult envisioning a path to the title game without ASU completely faceplanting - especially if that lone home loss is against those Sun Devils. 

It might be a bit pessimistic, but it shows you how difficult it is to actually win at this level. Road trips are not to be taken for granted, not even a trip to Pullman to take on the improving Washington State Cougars. The fact the Utes are only 2-5 against the BCS on the road since Whittingham arrived, with those wins coming against 3-9 Michigan and 6-6 Louisville, should keep most fans' expectations a bit grounded when looking at road games. 

For me, I think just finishing with an above .500 conference road record would be a huge indicator of good things to come for the Utes. If you're going to win in the Pac-12, most years you're going to have to do it on the road.

But I'm skeptical Utah can do it this season. I'm skeptical they're good enough to not drop two or three conference road games. SC and Arizona are going to be extremely tough and the Utes will be the underdog in both games for good reason. 

So if they're going to win the south, it's going to take perfection at home. Because I just don't see a path that includes winning on the road. 

That, of course, could change in a second if Utah bests SC a month and a week from Saturday. If they do that, they've claimed a huge road win and should be the favorites to win the division.

But that's a big question right now. Which is why I put so much weight on their ability to win at home. Every home game is winnable and, unless they start the season with a string of lopsided losses, the Utes should be favored in nearly every home game (minus ASU, and even then, some lines have Utah as favorites at the moment). 

That gives them five conference wins right off the bat. Now they can afford to drop two games to Arizona and SC and still be right in the thick of things in the end, especially if they own a win over ASU, since I think it's very unlikely the Sun Devils finish 8-1 in Pac-12 play. 

That's their door. The schedule is perfect for that advantage. And it's not like it hasn't been done before. Oregon went 9-0 in the final two years of the Pac-10 at home. 

With Utah's sketchy road past, I think it's asking a bit much for them to rapidly adapt to playing four conference road games against BCS teams. There will be a learning curve there, especially when a lot more will be on the line than when the Utes traditionally went down to Tucson to play Arizona (like in '04). 

Will they be able to handle the pressure? It's a question that none of us have an answer for, though I question their ability to do just that based on how poorly they've looked in the past.

It doesn't mean, though, I'm expecting bloodshed when Utah leaves the 801. Far from it. It's just not likely, in my mind, the Utes can withstand a loss at home and two losses on the road and still claim a shot at the Pac-12 title. 

That leaves two paths to the Pac-12 title game: 

 

  1. Win out at home, including a win over ASU. Then defeat Cal and Washington State on the road. That would give them a 7-2 mark and almost a near-guarantee spot in the title game because, as I said, I don't foresee the Sun Devils going 8-1 in conference play. And with Utah owning the tie-breaker, they can still get in with losses at SC and at Arizona. 
  2. They come of age on the road. Who knows, maybe the Utes will open the conference season with a win over SC and plant themselves atop the south division. It's possible. Certainly I think it's a game Utah could win. If that's the case, and they do win that one or go down to Tucson and beat the Wildcats, they'll be in good position, even with a home defeat, to win the Pac-12 South.

That's how I see it, anyway. The Utes have one thing going for them that no other Pac-12 South team has and that's the fact they miss both Oregon and Stanford. I mentioned that I think it's unlikely Arizona State would go 8-1 in the Pac-12 South if they lost to Utah because they've got to go to Eugene a week after their game against the Utes. That's a mighty tough road trip and I've got to suspect they'll be heading back to Tempe with no less than one loss. 

In the end, the Utes will obviously need to play good, consistent football throughout the nine-game schedule if they're going to have a shot at the Pac-12 South. Washington State is their easiest road game of the season and it's going to be hell. It's the second-to-last game of the season, Pullman can get downright nasty in November and the Cougars, while nowhere near where they were the last time Utah played there (a 27-7 win for Wazzu back in '99), are an upstart that will be difficult to beat, even if they have another down year. 

So consistent play throughout is their only hope. That means no letdowns, no taking the weekend off like they did when they played Notre Dame last year and certainly no sulking if they get their butts thumped in one game. 

If they do that, then they have a very good chance of proving me wrong and putting themselves a game away from the Rose Bowl. 

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