SANTA CLARA, Calif. — As good as Kyle Whittingham’s bowl record is — best in class, as it turns out — his postseason résumé could still use a boost. But if he wins Friday in the Pac-12 championship game, Whittingham can drop the mic and walk away.
He wouldn’t actually do that, of course. He’ll be priming for the next big challenge, i.e. the Rose Bowl. A win there would eclipse both the Fiesta and Sugar bowls that his teams have played in — if not in importance, at least in profile.
No bowl has more cachet than the "Granddaddy of ’Em All."
So the Utes go against Washington in what is also a bowl game of sorts. Utah has won just one of 11 games all-time against the Huskies. The Utes play Washington like Napoleon played Russia: high casualty count, ignominious retreat.
No one can say Whittingham has been unsuccessful at Utah. It’s hard to top an 11-1 bowl record. Nobody has a higher win percentage. Not Bear Bryant, not Nick Saban and certainly not Amos Alonzo Stagg.
This year, perhaps above all others, Whittingham has shown an ability to adapt and advance. His teams are rarely an easy out, and nearly always a threat in the South Division. But a major bowl contender? Not lately. That’s why his legacy could greatly benefit this year.
A win would secure his place as Utah’s most accomplished coach, with three New Year’s bowl games, counting the 2005 Fiesta Bowl, when he shared duties with Urban Meyer. It would reaffirm Whittingham as a big-game coach, not just a successful one.
That doesn’t mean his current bowl record is something to scoff at. But since Meyer left, Whittingham’s postseason profile has included the 2009 Sugar Bowl and a slew of games with bargain-bin credentials: Armed Forces, Emerald, Poinsettia, Las Vegas, Foster Farms and Heart of Dallas.
Only the pared-down Sun Bowl has any significant history.
Whittingham’s undefeated 2008 season is arguably the best in school history. Utah was a mid-major team with wild dreams. The Utes beat Alabama in the Sugar Bowl, finishing the season ranked No. 2. Whittingham was named National Coach of the Year by the American Football Coaches Association and the Paul “Bear” Bryant Awards committee. Then came the long stretch of minor bowls. His team entirely whiffed the 2012 and 2013 bowl seasons.
In any situation, Whittingham will downplay his role in Utah’s success.
“I’ll let (athletic director) Mark Harlan grade me,” he says.
Pressed further, he’ll redirect the subject to his coaching staff.
“OK, well I would rate our coaching job — particularly talking about our assistant coaches — as outstanding,” he says.
Credit Whittingham for taking advantage of circumstances. The Pac-12 South has been disparaged as the worst division among power conferences.
This year the league went 3-6 against non-conference P5 opponents. The wins came against teams that today have a combined 13-22 record. Then there were humiliating outings such as Oregon State’s 77-31 loss to Ohio State and UCLA’s 49-21 failure against Oklahoma.
UCLA managed to lose to Cincinnati, Arizona to Houston, and Oregon State to Nevada. Those are good opponents, but not influential ones.
Coaches in the Pac-12 insist top-to-bottom balance complicates things.
“It’s probably our own worst enemy, as far as the balance we have,” Whittingham says.21 comments on this story
The College Football Playoff committee isn’t buying the balance narrative. Washington is the Pac-12’s highest ranked team at No. 11. The conference will miss the championship playoffs for the third time in five years.
“You talk top to bottom about a conference that’s competitive, and has good football teams, I think the Pac-12 is outstanding in that regard,” Whittingham says.
Either way, the Rose Bowl is a glamorous appointment for virtually any team. It’s so storied that Hollywood made a movie about it — 82 years ago. That’s the kind of game that could put Whittingham in rare company. Good or bad season for the conference, it’s never a bad time to smell roses.