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.
In the wake of losing starting quarterback Jordan Wynn to an injury to his non-throwing shoulder and tough losses to USC and Washington, Whittingham has reminded the Utes to keep their heads up and fight their way through adversity — to find out who they are and what they're made of.
The sky is not falling, he added, there's just very little margin for error in the Pac-12.
"It's not like year's past where you can get away with four or five turnovers and still come away with a victory," Whittingham said. "You cannot do that in this league."
Senior linebacker Chaz Walker, a team captain, acknowledged that the players know it'll take a top-notch effort each week to get thongs done. They realize that every game is a big game. None bigger, however, than the next one on the schedule.
"We look at standings every week, just once a week, to see where we're at. But we don't dwell on it too much," Walker said. "We just figure if we come out and do our job on Saturday then the rest will fall into place. So we've just got to go out on Saturday and come out with a win."
Utes on the air
Arizona State (4-1, 2-0) at Utah (2-2, 0-2)
Saturday, 1:30 p.m.
TV: ROOT Radio: 700 AMPac-12 South race
A look at remaining league games for eligible teams in the Pac-12 South. With USC on NCAA probation and ineligible to participate in postseason play, the highest finisher will represent the division in the inaugural conference championship game in December.
ARIZONA STATE (2-0)
Oct. 8 — at Utah
Oct. 15 — at Oregon
Oct. 29 — COLORADO
Nov. 5 — at UCLA
Nov. 12 — at Washington State
Nov. 19 — ARIZONA
Nov. 25 — CALIFORNIA
Oct. 8 — WASHINGTON STATE
Oct. 20 — at Arizona
Oct. 29 — CALIFORNIA
Nov. 5 — ARIZONA STATE
Nov. 12 — at Utah
Nov. 19 — COLORADO
Nov. 26 — at USC
Oct. 8 — at Stanford
Oct. 15 — at Washington
Oct. 22 — OREGON
Oct. 29 — at Arizona State
Nov. 4 — USC
Nov. 12 — ARIZONA
Nov. 19 — at UCLA
Nov. 25 — at Utah
Oct. 8 — ARIZONA STATE
Oct. 22 — at California
Oct. 29 — OREGON STATE
Nov. 5 — at Arizona
Nov. 12 — UCLA
Nov. 19 — at Washington State
Nov. 25 — COLORADO
Oct. 8 — at Oregon State
Oct. 20 — UCLA
Oct. 29 — at Washington
Nov. 5 — UTAH
Nov. 12 — at Colorado
Nov. 19 — at Arizona State
Combined records of a team's Pac-12 opponents, still to be faced this season by squads eligible to represent the South Division in the conference championship game.
Colorado 24-13 .648
UCLA 18-14 .562
Arizona State 15-16 .483
Arizona 13-15 .464
UTAH 14-18 .437
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