BOULDER, Colo. — Utah is on the way to a third consecutive bowl game and — considering its postseason history — another win. If Kyle Whittingham’s frown is any indication, the Utes will be unstoppable from here on.
After losing to Oregon last Saturday, Whittingham said his team had won the most games of any team in the Pac-12 the last three years. As far as conference games go, Utah has won 16, in that span, behind USC and Stanford (19) and Oregon (17).
Still, the Utes are a lot to handle. But twice they have gone into the last two weeks of the season with the chance to play in the championship game, yet lost. In 2011, they needed to win at Colorado to have their shot at the Rose Bowl. This year the loss to Oregon did them in.
After six years in the Pac-12, Utah has been a solid, even desirable addition. It is in the top half of the conference for players on NFL rosters.
It has defeated every team in the conference, including USC and Stanford twice and UCLA three times. Against the Pac-12 South this year, the Utes are 4-0, sweeping both the Arizona and Southern California schools. Yet they’ve never won the division championship.
Utah will likely end up playing in a modest bowl game this year. Wherever that occurs, put your money on the Utes. Whittingham is 9-1 in postseason games. But as they prepare to play at Colorado in Saturday’s regular season finale, it’s fair to ask: Is that all there is? Have the Utes reached their ceiling?
This game should be a fair indicator.
“We have won eight games (this year) and have had a very good season,” Whittingham said. “I'm not sure what the expectations are. I expect to win every game. From the outside looking in, do you want us to win every game? What's the realistic expectation?”
The realistic expectation is this: A winning season and a bowl game, but no championship. That’s how they do things. This season has been a reminder the Utes could become the next Arizona, a school that has been in the conference since 1978 but never played in the Rose Bowl. That’s because Utah keeps melting down in November. In 2011, USC went 7-2 to win the South, but was ineligible due to NCAA sanctions. UCLA won the division. If Utah had defeated Colorado in the last game, it would have tied UCLA, and held the tiebreaker.
This year, Utah needed to beat Oregon and Colorado, and it would have guaranteed a place in the conference championship game.
How often can Utah expect USC to start out 0-2 in conference play — or, for that matter, be on probation as it was in 2011? How regularly does UCLA lose four consecutive conference games, as it did this year?
In 2014, the Utes also had a chance for a championship going into November. Last season they tied for the division title but lost the playoff bid on a tiebreaker.
They have come close, but never donned the party hat.
When the Jazz were moving into their golden era, Michael Jordan took a break to play baseball. It was a gift to the league. An absent Jordan meant anyone could win the championship.
In 1993-94, Houston won the Midwest Division, then went on to with the NBA title while Jordan was chasing the slider. The following year, though, the Jazz finished 13 games ahead of Houston. Yet the Rockets came back to win a second NBA title.
In both those seasons, the Jazz either split or won their series with the Rockets. Utah was possibly the better team but failed to prove it. Jordan returned in 1995-96, and the opportunity was gone for the Jazz; Chicago won the next three championships.
Opportunity doesn’t keep knocking forever.
Now the Utes can only hope to beat Colorado and win their bowl game. A two-game win streak to end the year would be a nice sign-out. But a loss at Colorado would be telling. Given the chances they’ve wasted, there’s a possibility this isn’t just a disappointing end to a promising season. It just might be as good as it gets.
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