SALT LAKE CITY — Many are calling it the biggest game for the Utah football team since joining the Pac-12 seven years ago when the Utes take on USC Saturday night (6 p.m.) at Rice-Eccles Stadium.
The Utes have had chances to advance to the league championship game going clear back to their first season in the league when a late-season loss to Colorado cost them a chance to advance to the title game in a year when USC was ineligible for the title. Utah tied for the division title in 2015, but lost the tiebreaker to USC.
This year, the Utes have been touted to have one of their most talented teams ever and were picked second behind USC in most preseason polls. So that makes this week’s game with the Trojans a must-win game for the Utes if there ever was one.
“If we take care of our business, we don’t need any help,” said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. “We just need to focus on ourselves and keep plugging away week by week, starting this week with USC. With how things sit now we control our own destiny.”
Still, the Utes have very little room for error. With the toughest schedule in the Pac-12 and two losses already this season, to Washington and Washington State, the Utes simply can’t lose to the one-loss Trojans if they want any hope of winning the South Division title. A defeat would give them three losses, which would mean the Trojans would have to lose three more games to fall behind Utah, since they would own the tiebreaker over the Utes.
A Utah win would leave both the Utes and Trojans at two losses with the Utes holding the tiebreaker in case of a tie. However, the Utes would not have any leeway, looking at the remaining games on each team’s schedules.
While the Utes still must play a ranked Oregon team, along with road games at Arizona State and Colorado, the Trojans have a breeze of a schedule with games against three of the worst four teams in the league in Oregon State, Cal and UCLA, after a home game against Arizona State next week.
When asked this week about the disparity in schedules, Whittingham didn’t complain, saying, “Oh well, that’s the way the schedule lays out. You control what you can control, and that’s beyond our control, so I don’t really worry about it. That cycles through and eventually all that will even out.”
Except for the Utes, it won’t even out until a future season.
Right now, all six teams still have a chance to win the South title, but it looks like a three-team race among the Utes, Trojans and Colorado. Either Arizona or UCLA will pick up their third loss this week, and Arizona State has a tough remaining schedule.
Here’s a look at each of the South teams and their outlooks for the rest of the season:
USC (4-2, 3-1) — After playing the Utes, the Trojans shouldn’t lose the rest of the season in Pac-12 play, against Arizona State, Oregon State, Cal and UCLA, which have a combined overall record of 8-16. Projected league record: 7-2.
Utah (4-2, 2-2) — Besides having the toughest overall schedule in the Pac-12 this year, the Utes’ remaining schedule isn’t easy with the road games at Arizona State and Colorado and home games against USC and Oregon. Winning five straight, which would extend their winning streak to seven, will be a huge challenge. Projected league record: 6-3.
Colorado (5-1, 2-1) — The Buffs have a fairly easy schedule after this week’s game at Washington, with games against Oregon State, Arizona and Cal. Even with a win this week, the Buffs will be challenged with a pair of tough home games against Washington State and Utah on back-to-back weeks in mid-November. Projected league record: 5-4.17 comments on this story
Arizona State (3-3, 1-2) — The Sun Devils have been better than most folks expected before the season under new head coach Herm Edwards, with a win over ranked Michigan State and a close loss at Washington. However, the only likely wins the rest of the way are against UCLA and Arizona. Projected league record: 3-6.
Arizona (3-4, 2-2) — The reeling Wildcats still have tough games against ranked teams Oregon and Washington State as well as Colorado and Arizona State. Projected league record: 2-7.
UCLA (1-5, 1-2) — The Bruins finally picked up a victory, the first of the Chip Kelly Era, a 37-7 trouncing of Cal last week. This week’s home game against Arizona will likely determine who eventually ends up last in the division. Projected league record: 2-7.