Tom Smart, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — Considering there's still a long way to go, it may seem early to examine the Pac-12 South race.
Saturday's clash between Utah and Arizona State at Rice-Eccles Stadium is a pivotal contest, one that could ultimately determine the division championship — even if the Sun Devils are currently 2-0 in conference play and the Utes are 0-2.
"As we've thought from the beginning of the season, this is one of the big games of the year for us," said ASU coach Dennis Erickson.
With USC ineligible to play in the inaugural Pac-12 Championship Game because of NCAA sanctions, ASU and Utah were the projected frontrunners in the conference's preseason media poll to secure the South Division berth.
Despite the early disparity in records, the showdown is still pivotal.
"You look at the standings and one opportunity we have is if we're able to win the game then that tightens the race back up again because now nobody's undefeated in the South," said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. "And so it is an important game."
Every game is important, he added, before acknowledging this one will have quite a swing on the standings.
"If we go down to 0-3 then (we're) pretty much out of the conference race," Whittingham continued. "And by the same token, if we're able to get a win then everything tightens up and we're right back in it. So it's pivotal in that respect."
ASU currently leads the South Division with a 2-0 mark in Pac-12 play. USC is second at 2-1, while UCLA is third at 1-1. Colorado (0-1), Utah (0-2) and Arizona (0-3) round out the rest.
"We set a goal that we were going to be in this conference race and we're in it," said UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel, who noted that the Bruins could possibly be tied for first after this week. "So it's everything we've asked for in terms of where we want to be in the conference race."
As far as Utah is concerned, Whittingham notes that it's still early. The Utes have seven conference games remaining and he's cautious about looking too far ahead.
However, there's also a sense of urgency to their situation.
"You don't want to go 0-3 because I don't believe that the winner of the South is going to have three losses," Whittingham said. "I think one or two would be my guess."
In that case, Utah's back is against the wall. The Utes have steps to take in order to climb into contention.
"We've got to get a South Division win first of all. Our goal, obviously at the end of the year, was to win the South Division but we can't do that without getting our first win," Whittingham said. "So that's what we're shooting for."
It won't be easy, however.
"This is a competitive league. Every week is going to be like this," Whittingham said. "I don't know if people thought we were going to come in and take the Pac-12 by storm and just walk through it. That's not reality."
What is reality, he explained, is that the Pac-12 is a good conference and it's going to take time to build up Utah's personnel and roster.
"It's a process," Whittingham continued. "Obviously we have high expectations and everyone wants to win every ballgame, but it's very difficult in this league to do that."
Besides ASU, Utah still has to face conference foes California, Oregon State, Arizona, UCLA, Washington State and Colorado this season.
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