Ready for a repeat?
Reasons are mounting why Utah will miss the postseason for a second consecutive season — the program is regressing from the progress made in the past decade. Among them: trends of on-field play, the difficulty of the remaining schedule and the Pac-12’s bowl outlook.
Most previous teams under Kyle Whittingham as head coach got stronger, particularly in the second half of the season. This fall, it is going the other way.
The 2005, 2006, 2007 and 2011 campaigns in particular saw resolute wins and strong finishes after. In 2005, Utah went 4-1 after starting 3-4. In 2006, it went 4-1 after starting 4-4. In 2007, 8-1 after 1-3. In 2011, 5-1 after 3-4.
Utah also showed high resolve in seasons when the Utes opened strongly. Among the first six games of the 2008 undefeated season, three contests were decided by a combined 12 points. The 2010 campaign marked the only other undefeated first half and the only series of games to have statistically significantly higher margins of victory over teams of comparable ability.
One would assume that had the pattern held true this year, things would have only looked up for Utah after beating the Cardinal. That win made the Utes 4-2. They were at worst the third-best of any team in the first half of Whittingham’s nine seasons as head coach.
The pattern hasn’t held true.
The offense was bad against Arizona and atrocious at USC. Previously, quarterback Travis Wilson completed 62 percent of his passes and 13 touchdowns, averaging 273 passing yards per game. Then he went 3-9 against the Wildcats and 5-14 against the Trojans. Four of the 15 incompletions were interceptions as his rating has hovered in, oh, the 30s. Stats like that indicate that a lacerated hand is just one of multiple concerns. (Where is his confidence?)
In the past two contests, the offense has gone just 11-35 on third-down conversions with six turnovers. Four came in the 19-3 USC defeat, when it managed just 201 total yards.
Utah’s schedule makeup the rest of the way isn’t friendly in the least.
After facing nationally ranked Arizona State at home this Saturday, the Utes play two of their final three away from Rice-Eccles Stadium. That’s a major problem since Utah has won just three of 11 Pac-12 roadies and is 0-2 this season. Those include the two defeats previously mentioned, which were far and away the Utes’ worst-played games of the year.
The Sun Devils have emerged as the cream of the Pac-12 South. Next is Oregon, the second-ranked team in the nation, in Eugene. Utah will need to beat Washington State (4-5, 2-4) in Pullman and Colorado (3-5, 0-5) in Salt Lake City to become bowl-eligible.
That’s doable, but consider: Where will the Utes’ mentality be after falling to ASU and getting crushed by the Ducks? Even on high morale, Utah couldn’t be expected to have no problem with the Cougars given their history in Pac-12 venues. And remember that the Utes lost to a 2-10 Buffs team at Rice-Eccles Stadium in 2011, when a spot in the league title game was on the line.
Even if the Utes get to six wins, the Pac-12 will not be able to accommodate them for a bowl.
As Mike Sorensen wrote, the conference could have as many as 10 bowl-eligible teams to fill just seven bowl commitments. That many teams already have six-plus wins, all but one at 6-3 or better. Sorensen wrote that a 6-6 team will stay home for the holidays if the Pac-12 has nine bowl-eligible teams and another spot does not open up in a bowl that doesn’t have a bowl-eligible team from its appointed conference. Or if two Pac-12 teams qualify for the Bowl Championship Series.
On any account, where will six-loss Utah’s mindset be when it still could become bowl-eligible but already knows that the postseason is doubtful or impossible?
Utah’s predicament should be as frustrating to fans as Kelvin York’s lack of playing time is to him. The Utes may suffer their first back-to-back losing seasons since 1989-90. If so, they will find themselves outside the bowl picture for back-to-back seasons for the first time since 1990-91.
As Utah last reached the BCS in 2009, the program will have been outside of the highest national prominence for half a decade.
Sensing the despair, athletic director Chris Hill will begin running out of reasons to keep Whittingham on the hill.
Rhett Wilkinson is a project manager for Utah Policy Daily. The co-founder of magazine AggieBluePrint.com, he has interned for the Deseret News (features, business, editorial) and other publications. firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter: @wilklogan