Our friends over at Team Speed Kills did an excellent article on what if the 2001 Florida Gators did not lose running back Ernest Graham. This got us thinking, about a what if scenario for Utah, but a different type: what if the Pac-12 formed three seasons earlier in 2008? Obviously 2008 was a great season for Utah rather than a season like 2001 for Florida or 2007 for Oregon where what could have been a great season fell short because of an injury to a key player. Instead, Utah was in the Mountain West Conference, so despite being the only undefeated team in the nation, the Utes were not the national champions (incidentally it was the Florida Gators led by former Utah head coach Urban Meyer). We take a look at what might have happened if Utah was in the Pac-12 in 2008 rather than the Mountain West.
Utah was led by senior quarterback Brian Johnson to a 13-0 season and a No. 2 ranking in the final AP Poll, which included wins over No. 6 Alabama in the Sugar Bowl, No. 7 TCU, No. 18 Oregon State, and No. 25 BYU. Utah along with Florida were the only teams in 2008 that beat four ranked teams including at least two ranked in the top 10. Now we can argue till we are blue in the face whether Utah should have had a shot at the national championship (I believe they should have since they played a tougher schedule than Florida State did in 2013 when they won the national championship according to Jeff Sagarin's strength of schedule rankings), but that is not the point of this article, we want to see how Utah might have faired if they were in the Pac-12 in 2008.
For the nonconference schedule in 2008, Utah played at Michigan, at Utah State, Weber State, and Oregon State. In the Pac-12, Utah would have only played three nonconference games, but Oregon State would be a conference game rather than a nonconference game. We could assume Utah would have played at Michigan, then two of three between at Utah State, Weber State, and BYU. However we look at it, Utah would have gone 3-0 in nonconference since they defeated all of those teams in 2008.
For conference schedule, Utah would have played the other five teams in the Pac-12 South, which included No. 3 USC (12-1), Arizona (8-5), Arizona State (5-7), Colorado (5-7), and UCLA (4-8). Utah would have also played four of six Pac-12 North teams, which include: No. 9 Oregon (10-3), No. 18 Oregon State (9-4), No. 25 California (9-4), Stanford (5-7), Washington (0-12), and Washington State (2-11). The hardest possible schedule against the Pac-12 North would have been Oregon, Oregon State, Cal, and Washington State. The easiest schedule would have been Oregon State, Stanford, Washington, and Washington State.
If Utah faced the easiest possible schedule against the Pac-12 North, 4-0 seems very likely. The Washington schools were not good in 2008. Washington was a better team at the start of the season when quarterback Jake Locker was healthy (he suffered a season-ending injury in a week four loss to Stanford). With Locker, UW almost knocked off BYU at home, falling 28-27 on a blocked extra point after a controversial 15-yard penalty on Locker. Stanford was not yet the Stanford of today that dominates the Pac-12 on a regular basis, though Jim Harbaugh was the coach and was beginning to turn the program around. Utah is 2-0 against better Stanford teams since joining the Pac-12, so it seems likely the 2008 squad could have handled the Cardinal. Stanford shared two common opponents with Utah: Oregon State, who they defeated 36-28 at home in week one, and TCU, who they lost to 31-14 on the road. Since Utah did defeat Oregon State in 2008, we will assume they would have defeated the Beavers had they been in the Pac-12.
If Utah played the toughest schedule possible against the Pac-12 North, they would have faced Cal and Oregon instead of Stanford and Washington. Both of these teams could have given Utah trouble. Cal and Utah shared only Oregon State as a common opponent in 2008 (with Oregon State defeating Cal at home 34-21). Cal defeated Oregon and played USC very tough on the road in 2008. Cal was led by sophomore running back Jahvid Best, who averaged 8.14 yards per carry and had over 1,500 yards rushing. Freshman running back Shane Vereen also saw action running the football, eclipsing over 700 yards. I think Utah would have beaten Cal because the Utes had one of the best run defenses in the nation, holding four teams to under 2.0 yards per carry.
The hardest game to predict against Pac-12 North opponents would be Oregon. Utah and Oregon had common opponents Utah State and Oregon State. Oregon defeated Utah State 66-24. Utah beat the Aggies 58-10. Oregon destroyed Oregon State on the road 65-38. Utah did not face a team in 2008 with an offense nearly as good as Oregon's. Oregon ranked No. 7 in the nation in both total offense and scoring offense. The best offense Utah faced in 2008 was BYU's (No. 16 in total offense and No. 20 in scoring offense). BYU averaged 40 yards and just under 8.0 points less per game compared to Oregon in 2008. Utah held BYU to 24 points. Oregon was a run-first team, featuring two 1,000-yard rushers: running backs Jeremiah Johnson and LaGarrette Blount. Quarterback Jeremiah Masoli also added 714 yards rushing. Against USC's No. 5 rated rushing defense, Oregon managed only 60 rushing yards on 39 carries in a 44-10 blowout loss. Utah was No. 11 in rushing defense in 2008, which would have made the Utes the second-best rushing defense Oregon would have faced all year. Utah shut down several very good rushing teams, including being the only team in the 2008 season to hold Air Force (No. 7 in total rushing yards) to under 100 yards rushing. Utah also held TCU (No. 12 in total rushing yards, against Utah 165 yards, one rushing touchdown), New Mexico (No. 16 in total rushing yards, against Utah 119 rushing yards, one rushing touchdown), and Alabama (No. 30 in total rushing yards) in check. Utah held Alabama to under 1.0 yard per carry in the 2009 Sugar Bowl. No team has done that in the seven seasons since the 2009 Sugar Bowl. While Oregon's rushing offense (and offense in general) was better than any team Utah faced, it is fair to say that Utah defense would have given the Ducks trouble. This is honestly a game that could have gone either way and home-field advantage may have been the deciding factor. I am going with a toss-up on this matchup since it is too difficult to predict exactly how Utah would handle an offense that was better than any they saw all year.
It is fair to assume Utah could have gone 4-0 against Arizona, Arizona State, Colorado, and UCLA. Arizona did have the ability to put up a lot of points and played teams like USC and Oregon tough. Utah and Arizona had two common opponents: BYU and New Mexico. Utah defeated BYU 48-24 at home where Arizona defeated BYU 31-21 in the Las Vegas Bowl. Utah won at New Mexico 13-10 where Arizona lost at New Mexico 36-28. Utah and UCLA shared one common opponent: BYU. UCLA lost 59-0 at BYU. Utah also demolished UCLA 44-6 at home in 2007.
The most likely loss would have been against USC. Now, first off, I know Utah beat Oregon State who defeated USC, but the transitive property in college football does not always hold. The performance of teams in different weeks can be highly variable especially in college football. In 2008, USC faced three times that finished ranked in the AP top 10 (No. 8 Penn State, No. 9 Ohio State, and No. 10 Oregon) by a combined score of 117 to 37 (for an average of 39-12 per game). The 2008 Trojans featured a starting linebacker corps of Brian Cushing, Kaluka Maiava, Clay Matthews, and Rey Maualuga, who were all drafted in the 2009 NFL Draft. There were 11 total Trojans selected in the 2009 NFL Draft, including three in the first round, led by quarterback Mark Sanchez, who was selected fifth overall (seven more Trojans were taken in the 2010 NFL Draft as well). Safety Taylor Mays was one of the hardest hitting college safeties (see this video of a hit he had in the 2009 Rose Bowl). The 2008 Trojans could lay the wood on opposing teams (here is a video of Maualuga tackling UCLA quarterback Patrick Cowan). The USC defense was in the top five in the nation in scoring defense (No. 1) total defense (No. 2), passing defense (No. 1), and rushing defense (No. 5). The only defense that Utah faced that was comparable to USC's was TCU's defense. Utah had their worst offensive game against TCU, managing their lowest total yards (275), yards per play (4.17), and tied for their lowest amount of points scored (13). USC faced two defenses in 2008 that were as good or better than Utah's defense (No. 11 in total defense and No. 12 in scoring defense): Penn State's (No. 8 in total defense and scoring defense) and Ohio State's (No. 14 in total defense and No. 6 in scoring defense). USC scored 38 points on Penn State and 35 points on Ohio State (both gave up less than 15 points per game for the whole season). USC's lowest scoring output was 17 points against Cal (No. 26 in total defense and No. 23 in scoring defense). Looking at these stats, could Utah have beaten USC in 2008? Yes, it is possible, but the most likely scenario would have been a loss against the Trojans, especially if the game was played in Los Angeles. I expect it would be a close game for three quarters before USC would ultimately pull away a little for a roughly 28-17 win.
The biggest question is how would Utah have faired on the injury front? Something Utah fans would not want to hear in 2008 but would likely agree with now is that there truly is a grind playing in a Power 5 Conference. Utah dealt with a lot of injuries every year they have been in the Pac-12. Playing in the Mountain West in 2008, Utah did not have to deal with nearly the same amount of injuries. Had Utah been in the Pac-12 in 2008, it seems likely that they would have injury issues similar to what they have seen since 2011. Even though Utah's starting 22 were likely better than the starting 22 of nine or 10 of the other teams in the Pac-12 (with only USC and possibly Oregon being better), it is conceivable Utah could have lost more than one or two games if injuries piled up. In 2008, Utah might not have had the depth necessary to survive a Pac-12 season. Johnson did have several injuries that caused him to miss time during his career. The season would have gone very differently if Johnson missed games due to an injury.
The 2008 Utah football team was a great team, defeating four ranked teams. As Utah fans have learned though, playing in the Pac-12 is a grind that often results in injuries piling up, and upset losses if the team has an off game, which were not as much of an issue playing in the Mountain West. Utah was able to easily defeat multiple conference opponents, meaning starters could often rest in the fourth quarter, which would not have happened in the Pac-12. If Utah managed to stay healthy, they likely would have gone 11-1 (falling only to USC) or 10-2 (with losses to USC and either Oregon or an upset loss to a team like Arizona or Cal) in 2008. Utah likely would have suffered injuries comparable to what has happened in the last five seasons in the Pac-12. With the Pac-12 grind getting to Utah, 9-3 seems like a possibility. Teams like Arizona, Cal, and Oregon State all could have given an injury depleted Utah team trouble in 2008. If Utah managed to stay healthy and achieve an 11-1 record in the Pac-12 with a loss only to USC, that would have gotten Utah into a BCS bowl berth. A 10-2 Utah would have had a decent shot at a BCS bowl (especially if the Utes were competitive against USC). Ohio State made the 2009 Fiesta Bowl with two losses (which included a 35-3 loss at USC). 9-3 would have put Utah in the Emerald Bowl against Miami (FL) or the Las Vegas Bowl against BYU (and anything worse than 9-3 would have assuredly meant the Las Vegas Bowl). It is interesting to think that Utah's best season in the Pac-12 (2015 going 9-3) and arguably their best season in the Mountain West in 2008 might have played out eerily similar had the Utes been in the Pac-12 since 2008 (i.e. having the same record and playing in the same bowl game against the same team).
What do you think would have happened if Utah was in the Pac-12 in 2008? Sound off below in the comments.