There is still one weekend of meaningful college football before we hit the bowl season, as conferences find their champions, but the bowl picture is starting to clear up. Barring some upsets and decisions by the playoff committee, the destination for Utah seems to be set, but, as we learned this season in the Pac-12, nothing is set in stone. So let's prepare for all the possible outcomes as Utes fans ponder travel and hotel stays to watch Utah return to the bowl stage for the first time in three seasons.
The Pac-12 conference has tie-ins to six bowl games from 2014-2019, those bowl are the Alamo, Holiday, Foster Farms, Sun, Vegas, and the Cactus. Utah needs to only pay attention to two of those destinations, the Sun Bowl and the Las Vegas Bowl, the most likely outcome sees Utah packing their bags for El Paso and the Sun Bowl.
The Sun Bowl: The Pac-12 #5 vs. the ACC #4. Utah fans are familiar with the Sun Bowl after Utah capped off its inaugural Pac-12 season with a 30-27 overtime win over Georgia Tech in 2011. Utah's berth here depends on the outcome of the Pac-12 title game. If Oregon can avenge its loss to Arizona they will be College Football Playoff bound while Arizona will find comfort in a New Year's Six bowl. With two teams going to "Non tie-in" bowl games, that would jump Utah up to the Sun Bowl.
Their opponent is the #4 team from the ACC, but who that will be is a little more complicated:
If both Florida State and Georgia Tech wind up in the CFP/New Years Six bowls, the Sun Bowl committee will be considering three teams all tied with 4-4 conference records: Boston College, North Carolina, and Pittsburgh. If only one of them winds up in a CFP/NY6 bowl, then the Sun Bowl would be considering Duke or Louisville with matching 5-3 conference records.
The Vegas Bowl: A destination Utes fans will be very familiar with and a possibility of a great Utah sports trip as the Runnin' Utes will be in Vegas for a game against UNLV the same day, December 20th. This outcome, while familiar and fun for a lot of Utes fans, does not seem too likely. Oregon would need to beat Arizona in the Pac-12 title game and do so in such a manner that Arizona falls far enough down the rankings that they don't receive a berth in a New Years Six bowl. If Arizona were to win, it seems likely that both teams would wind up in a NY6 bowl.
The opponent relies on a MWC title game which is Boise State (10-2) vs. Fresno State (6-6), a game that Fresno State would need to win to be bowl eligible, barring a waiver from the NCAA (which they would probably receive).
The ability to avenge a bowl loss versus Boise State and then watch the Runnin' Utes on the hardwood against UNLV later that night is a fun proposition for the Utes. But a rematch with Fresno State, if they were able to pull off the upset, would put a very sour taste on this bowl season.
Our colleague Jason Kirk sees Utah landing in the Sun Bowl taking on Duke from the ACC. Duke (9-3, 5-3 ACC) is tied for fourth in the ACC with Louisville as both teams are 5-3 in ACC play and did not play each other. Duke finished second in the ACC Coastal division. The Blue Devil offense is led by the senior dual threat quarterback Anthony Boone. They feature a defense that allows yards (400.3) but not a lot of points (20.6). Their solid record is helped by a poor schedule; their only good win was a 31-25 win at Georgia Tech.
CBS Sports also sees Utah in the Sun Bowl but taking on North Carolina State from the ACC. N.C. State (7-5, 3-5 ACC) is tied for eighth in the ACC, and the Sun Bowl is supposed to take the fourth team from the ACC. N.C. State is not a very good team. Outside of playing Florida State tough (losing 56-41), they were soundly beaten by every other ranked team they faced and did not beat a Power 5 opponent with a winning record. Their offense is led by the former Florida Gator quarterback Jacoby Brissett. The Wolfpack feature a middle of the road defense.
Both Mark Schlabach and Brett McMurphy see Utah playing in the Sun Bowl, but they differ on the opponent. Schlabach sees Utah facing Louisville while McMurphy sees Notre Dame as the opponent. Either of these would be solid match ups for the Utes. Louisville (9-3, 5-3 ACC) is ranked (20 in the Coach's Poll, 21 in the AP Poll), and Notre Dame (7-5) is a one of the nation's most storied programs. Louisville features a great defense (293.3 yards and 20.5 points per game) and a decent offense (396.3 yards and 32.6 points per game). Defensive back Gerod Holliman tied an NCAA record with 14 interceptions on the season. Notre Dame started the season strong at 6-0 and nearly knocked off then no. 1 Florida State on the road. After the close loss to FSU, Notre Dame is only 1-4. Quarterback Everett Golson has struggled with turnovers this season throwing 14 interceptions and fumbling 12 times (losing 8). He has also been sacked 27 times.
Phil Steele also sees Utah squaring off against the Fighting Irish in the Sun Bowl.
Tampa Bay Times
The Tampa Bay Times agrees with Phil Steele and Brett McMurphy in seeing Utah matching up against Notre Dame in the Sun Bowl.
College Sports Madness
College Sports Madness sees Utah taking on a familiar foe in the Utah State Aggies in the Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl. Utah State (9-4, 6-2 MW) has had to deal with multiple quarterback injuries, losing Chuckie Keeton, Darrell Garretson, and Craig Harrison. Freshman Kent Myers has had to finish the season at quarterback for the Aggies. Utah State is strong on the defensive side of the ball (362.3 yards and 20.8 points per game). This scenario is unlikely however since the Las Vegas Bowl bid goes to the Mountain West champion, which will likely be Boise State. If Boise State gets a Fiesta Bowl bid, which is very likely, Colorado State, who finished second in the Mountain West and beat Utah State, would be the likely replacement in the Las Vegas Bowl. If Stanford were selected ahead of Utah for the Las Vegas Bowl, Utah would end up taking on a Big XII team in the Cactus Bowl, but the Big XII does not have enough bowl eligible teams to fill this bowl, so the opponent could come from multiple different conferences. Air Force, East Carolina, Utah State, North Carolina, Temple, and Pitt have all been projected into the Cactus Bowl by various sources.
Our prediction: Oregon and Florida State win their conference crowns and lock up their spots in the inaugural College Football Playoff. Arizona gets an invitation to a New Year's Six bowl game, while the loss to Florida State sends Georgia Tech too far down the rankings and they don't snag an invite. Utah accepts a bid to play down in El Paso in the Sun Bowl, while Duke does the same.
Utah vs. Duke in a match up of two teams that should get used to playing each other in the post season.