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Breaking Down Utah's Potential Bowl Matchups

Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Joseph broke down some bowl projections for Utah football that can be found here. With the regular season done, it would seem that bowl projections would be straight-forward, but the situation is far more muddy than one might think. The Pac-12 currently has five teams with between two and four losses in conference. Oregon has two, USC, Utah and Washington State all have three, and UCLA has four. This means that pretty much any of these teams could theoretically go to the Valero Alamo Bowl, National University Holiday Bowl, Foster Farms Bowl, Hyundai Sun Bowl, or the Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl (UCLA cannot go to the Alamo Bowl, and Oregon cannot go to the Las Vegas Bowl). The Alamo, Holiday, and Foster Farms Bowls can each pick while the Sun and Vegas Bowls must take the Pac-12 team with fewest losses (so the Sun Bowl would have to take USC/Utah/WSU over UCLA). This means that Utah could get picked over Oregon, USC, and Washington State for the Alamo Bowl or could end up falling all the way to the Las Vegas Bowl. Since Utah and Washington State have the same conference record, the scenarios in this article from Coug Center apply the same way for Utah as well.

First, let's get this matchup out of the way... Utah vs. BYU in the Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl. Campus Insiders projects this matchup for the Utes. The Vegas Bowl might like this matchup since it is a historic rivalry. The Vegas Bowl has the sixth pick for a Pac-12 team, so for this to happen, the Valero Alamo Bowl, National University Holiday Bowl, Foster Farms Bowl, and Hyundai Sun Bowl would all have to pass on the Utes. Another thing going against this matchup is that bowls tend to not like having the same team two years in a row, and Utah won the Vegas Bowl last year. So, how could this happen? Well, after starting 6-0, Utah wilted down the stretch, going 3-3 in the second half of the season. They also lost their best player and biggest name: running back Devontae Booker. Utah is not a flashy team, so the other bowls may favor other teams in the Pac-12 that can score a lot of points. BYU finished the season 9-3. BYU finished the season 1-3 against Power 5 opponents, only beating 5-7 Nebraska on a last-play Hail Mary. BYU is not ranked and is currently No. 28 in the AP Poll based on the votes they have received. Utah would gain little with a win (like last year against Colorado State) but would lose a lot with a loss. This is likely the worst-case scenario for Utah when it comes to a bowl game.

Multiple predictions see Utah headed to the Hyundai Sun Bowl, but none agree on the opponent. Sports Illustrated sees the Utes taking on N.C. State. ESPN's Brett McMurphy also sees the Utes playing Miami. Lastly, Fox Sports sees Pittsburgh as Utah's opponent in the Sun Bowl. The Sun Bowl has the fifth choice of a Pac-12 team. Utah last played in the Sun Bowl in 2011, defeating Georgia Tech. The Sun Bowl would at least give the Utes a Power Five opponent. Miami and Pittsburgh both finished the season 8-4, while N.C. State finished 7-5. The game against Miami would have some intrigue because Utah assistant head coach and running backs coach Dennis Erickson won two National Championships as the coach of Miami in 1989 and 1991. Utah has also been recruiting Florida much more in recent years, so playing a name program from south Florida would certainly have some recruits watching. Miami fired head coach Al Golden after a 58-0 at home against Clemson. Since firing Golden, Miami has gone 4-1, only falling to North Carolina. N.C. State did not beat an FBS team with a winning record all season. Miami would be a good matchup since they are a well-known program. N.C. State would be another matchup where Utah would gain very little but could lose a lot. Pittsburgh would be an intriguing matchup. Pitt wide receiver Tyler Boyd will likely hear his named called in the first few rounds of the 2016 NFL Draft. Pitt finished second in the ACC Coastal Division. They played a tough nonconference schedule that included Iowa and Notre Dame. A win over Pitt would be nice, but it would not be a marquee win since the Panthers are not ranked, and the ACC by and large has been seen as a weak conference outside of a few top teams. After Utah's best season in the Pac-12, appearing in a bowl they have been to recently would be at least a little disappointing.

College Sports Madness has the Utes in the Foster Farms Bowl against Indiana. The game is played at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif. Utah would have loved to have a game at Levi's Stadium before the season, but this is not the game. Indiana beat only one team with a winning record (10-2 Western Kentucky), but they put a scare into Ohio State, Iowa, Michigan, and Rutgers, falling by one score in each of those games. Indiana is a Power Five opponent, but they are not a very good one. They have shown they can put a scare into good teams, and they can score points (36.2 per game, No. 24). Indiana quarterback Nate Sudfeld throws for almost 300 yards per game. UAB transfer running back Jordan Howard amassed over 1,200 in only nine games. This is not a good matchup for Utah for multiple reasons. Indiana has an offense that could challenge the Utah defense, giving Indiana a great chance to win the game because I do not like Utah's chances in a shootout. Indiana is not a well-respected Power Five team, usually finishing near the bottom of the Big Ten. This will be the first bowl game appearance for the Hoosiers since the 2007 Insight Bowl (where they were defeated by Oklahoma State). They have only played in nine bowl games in 120 years. This could make them hungry to come out and beat their opponent. This would be yet another game where Utah would lose a lot with a loss and gain little with a win. Indiana is one of many Big Ten teams that have been mocked to the Foster Farms Bowl. Many scenarios see the Foster Farms Bowl having to take a 5-7 Big Ten team (like Nebraska or Minnesota) because there are not enough bowl-eligible teams to fill the spots in the record 41 bowls this year.

SB Nation, CBS Sports, ESPN's Mark Schlabach, and FanSided all see Utah in the National University Holiday Bowl against Wisconsin. This seems like by far the most likely matchup and is probably the best matchup for the Utes realistically. The Badgers finished the season 9-3. They faced three ranked teams (Alabama, Iowa, and Northwestern) and lost all three games. Wisconsin, typically a run-first team, has struggled to run the football this season after losing Doak Walker Award winning running back Melvin Gordon. Wisconsin did not have a running back run for over 1,000 yards (provided running back Dare Ogunbowale does not run for 231 yards in the bowl game) for the first time since 2004. Wisconsin has had a running back top 1,000 yards rushing in 20 of the previous 22 seasons. Wisconsin has relied on quarterback Joel Stave (who is 57th in the nation in passing yards per game with 205.8) and receiver Alex Erickson, who averages 77.0 receiving yards per game (No. 41 in the nation). Wisconsin is currently ranked No. 25 in the AP Poll and Coaches Poll. A bowl game between two ranked Power Five teams would attract a lot of eyes from around the nation. The game is also played in San Diego, Calif., and southern California is a primary recruiting ground for the Utes.

Our projection here at BlockU has Utah in the Valero Alamo Bowl against TCU. Joseph's statistical model has this matchup occurring due to USC beating Stanford in the Pac-12 Championship game, thus getting two Pac-12 teams in New Year's Six bowl games, and since Utah and Oregon both have a 9-3 record, Joseph's model gives the edge to Utah due to the head-to-head win. I however do not see this playing out because Oregon has a better Pac-12 record, is ranked ahead of Utah, and is the bigger name program, having played just last year in the College Football Playoff. The Alamo Bowl would likely take Oregon for these reasons over Utah because it would be a higher profile game, though the matchup between two former Mountain West BCS Busters turned Power Five teams would have some intrigue. TCU will very likely be ranked in or close to the top 10 by the time bowl season rolls around, so they would certainly be the highest profile potential bowl opponent for Utah if they were chosen for the Alamo Bowl, but it is a poor matchup for Utah. TCU has a potent offense, especially through the air that could challenge Utah's secondary. TCU quarterback Trevone Boykin spent much of the 2015 season as a Heisman candidate before injuries slowed him towards the end of the season.