SALT LAKE CITY — Thanks to last week’s 31-point win over UCLA, the Utah football team suddenly finds itself on the verge of securing its fourth straight bowl bid, 12th bowl appearance in the last 14 seasons and 21st overall.
With three games to go in the season, the possibilities for the Utes are numerous.
They could end up in the Las Vegas Bowl for the fourth time since 2010 and the sixth time overall. They could go to Phoenix for the Cactus Bowl for the first time or back to the Foster Farms Bowl, where they beat Indiana last year. There’s even an outside chance they could make it to one of the Pac-12’s premier bowls, the Alamo Bowl or Holiday Bowl.
The Utes could also end up going to a new destination such as Birmingham, Alabama or Shreveport, Louisiana. Or how about this – the Utes could go to the Sun Bowl and face off against a familiar face in coach Bronco Mendenhall and his Virginia Cavaliers. The Sun Bowl is affiliated with the ACC and several publications have bowl-eligible Virginia going to El Paso.
The Utes need one more victory to become bowl eligible, which won’t be easy considering they’re playing a pair of Top 20 teams in Washington State (No. 19) and Washington (No. 9), along with rival Colorado, which has always been a tough opponent during six years of Pac-12 play (every game decided by a touchdown or less).
Even with six victories, the Utes aren’t guaranteed of a bowl berth, although being from a Power-Five conference with a sterling bowl record (13-1 over the past 20 years), should give them an edge if there’s a glut of 6-6 teams. There are 78 bowl spots available in the country, two less than last year and already 50 schools are bowl-eligible, including five from the Pac-12. Utah is one of 21 schools and five from the Pac-12 that are one win away.
It’s possible that 11 of the Pac-12 schools could become bowl eligible if outcomes go a certain way. Only Oregon State, at 1-8, is out of the running for a bowl at this point. More likely nine or 10 Pac-12 schools will find themselves bowl eligible by the end of the month. Last year just six teams from the Pac-12 made it to bowl games, a year after a record 10 teams made it to bowls.
It’s likely that at least one and possibly two Pac-12 teams will play in New Year’s Six bowls – the two national championship semifinals games (Rose and Sugar bowls) and the Cotton, Fiesta, Peach and Orange bowls.
After that the top two bowls for the Pac-12 are the Alamo Bowl in San Antonio and Holiday Bowl in San Diego, which are both being played on Dec. 28. The other four bowls with Pac-12 affiliations are the Foster Farms Bowl in Santa Clara, California, the Sun Bowl in El Paso, the Las Vegas Bowl and the Cactus Bowl in Phoenix.
Here are four different scenarios for the Utes as they head into the final stretch of the season:
Win all three games and finish at 8-4
If they win out, the Utes could be in position to get into the either the Holiday Bowl or Alamo Bowl for the first time. Even though an 8-4 record isn’t great, the Utes would be on a four-game winning streak and own wins over Washington, Arizona and Washington State, who are each likely to have at least eight wins as well, not to mention a one-point loss to USC, which could end up 10-2. Another possibility would be a return trip to the Foster Farms Bowl, although some bowls don’t like to have the same team in consecutive years.
Beat Washington State and Colorado at home and finish 7-5
With two wins in their last three, the Utes would likely find themselves going to one of the league’s lower-tier bowls, the Las Vegas Bowl, Sun Bowl or Cactus Bowl. Of these three, the Cactus Bowl would be the least appealing as it is played on Dec. 26, meaning fans would have to go down on Christmas Day or earlier. The Las Vegas Bowl is attractive because it is played on Dec. 16, well before Christmas and is an easy drive for Ute fans. The Sun Bowl isn’t in the greatest locale, but the later date — Dec. 29 — would give fans time to get there.
Beat Colorado or Washington State and finish 6-6
This would leave the Utes hoping to get into either the Cactus or Las Vegas bowls, but perhaps being sent to a bowl where another conference doesn’t qualify. Right now it looks like the SEC, Big 12 and Big Ten may have a difficult time qualifying enough teams for all of their bowl commitments. That would leave such bowls as the Heart of Dallas Bowl (Dec. 26), the Birmingham Bowl (Dec. 23) and the Independence Bowl (Dec, 27) as possible destinations. Other possibilities are the Armed Forces Bowl in Fort Worth (Dec. 23), the Texas Bowl in Houston (Dec. 27) and the Frisco Bowl, near Dallas (Dec. 20).
Lose all three games and finish 5-7
It’s true that a couple of 5-7 teams made it to bowl games last year because there weren’t enough six-win teams, but it looks like there will be plenty of six-win teams this year and with one fewer bowl, a few of them won’t get bowl bids. If the Utes finish 5-7, they’ll be sitting home like they were in 2012 and 2013 with the same record.
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What the experts think about Utah’s bowl chances
ESPN: Cactus Bowl vs. Texas
CBS: Las Vegas Bowl vs. Boise State
Sporting News: Armed Forces Bowl vs. Army
Sports Illustrated: Cactus Bowl vs. Utah State
College FB News: Las Vegas Bowl vs. Boise State
SB Nation: Sun Bowl vs. Virginia