Jon Wilner on Utah's season and Pac-12 bowl prospects

Pac-12 bowl projections: Utah’s path widens, Oregon to the Rose, Oregon State to the Holiday

Oct. 12, 2021

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Utah wide receiver Money Parks (10) makes a touchdown catch during the first half of the team’s NCAA college football game against Southern California on Saturday, Oct. 9, 2021, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)AP

By Jon Wilner | Bay Area News Group

In 10 minutes, Utah transformed its Saturday, its season and its postseason.

In 10 minutes that spanned the end of the second quarter and the beginning of the third, the Utes blasted through USC for 267 yards, four touchdowns, an insurmountable lead and one indisputable statement: They are back.

The victory created ample margin for error as Utah chases its seventh consecutive bowl berth (in non-pandemic years).

Excluding last winter, the Utes haven’t been home for the holidays since back in 2013, at the end of the multi-year roster fortification process that followed their transition into the Pac-12.

Their path looked treacherous in late September after a loss to BYU — we didn’t think that was possible — and an overtime defeat at San Diego State.

But efficient quarterback play and an improved defense fueled consecutive victories over Washington State and USC, thereby altering the postseason calculation:

The Utes need just three wins in their final seven games to qualify — a stretch that includes dates with struggling Colorado and Arizona.

Sweep those South cellar-dwellers, and the Utes would need one more victory, anywhere, against anybody, to secure the six victories needed for qualification.

But why stop at six?

A victory Saturday over Arizona State would leave Utah as the Pac-12′s only undefeated team in conference play, with head-to-head wins over USC and ASU and only one other legitimate contender in the division: UCLA, which visits Salt Lake City at the end of the month.

Win Saturday, and by the close of October, the Utes just might have full control of the South and a bowl berth locked up.

To the projections (with home and road games remaining) …

Rose Bowl (vs. Big Ten)

Team: Oregon (4-1, 1-1)

Home games (four): Cal, Colorado, Washington State, Oregon State

Road games (three): UCLA, Washington, Utah

Comment: In case you lost track of Ohio State’s results, know this: The Buckeyes have won their last two Big Ten games by a combined score of 118-30. That’s good news for the Ducks, who would win a resume standoff against OSU for the final playoff berth if both teams finished 12-1.

Alamo Bowl (vs. Big 12)

Team: Arizona State (5-1, 3-0)

Home games (three): Washington State, USC, Arizona

Road games (three): Utah, Washington, Oregon State

Comment: The Sun Devils are the best team in the conference right now. But we’re not quite convinced they will be the best team in the conference on the first Friday of December. Beware the early peak.

Las Vegas Bowl (vs. Big Ten)

Team: Utah (3-2, 2-0)

Home games (four): Arizona State, UCLA, Oregon, Colorado

Road games (three): Oregon State, Stanford, Arizona

Comment: Utah against either of the Michigan teams at Allegiant Stadium would be a fascinating matchup given their smash-mouth similarities.

Holiday Bowl (vs. ACC)

Team: Oregon State (4-2, 2-1)

Home games (three): Utah, Stanford, Arizona State

Road games (three): Cal, Colorado, Oregon

Comment: There is no remaining game the Beavers cannot win but only one remaining game they cannot lose (Colorado). So this resurgence could go any number of ways.

Sun Bowl (vs. ACC)

Team: UCLA (4-2, 2-1)

Home games (three): Oregon, Colorado, Cal

Road games (three): Washington, Utah, USC

Comment: Starting with the Sun Bowl, teams are slotted into games based on conference record. At the top of the lineup, the bowls can pick Team Y over Team X as long as there is no more than a one-game difference in conference record.

LA Bowl (vs. Mountain West)

Team: Stanford (3-3, 2-2)

Home games (four): Washington, Utah, Cal, Notre Dame

Road games (two): Washington State and Oregon State

Comment: The heavy load of remaining home games means nothing. Stanford has been very good on the road since the middle of last season and holds little home-field advantage. Critical game this week in Pullman.

ESPN Bowl (Gasparilla, Armed Forces or First Responders)

Team: USC (3-3, 2-3)

Home games (three): Arizona, UCLA, BYU

Road games (three): Notre Dame, Arizona State, Cal

Comment: Only Arizona is a lock, and the situation could deteriorate quickly. But we didn’t need the Hubble to spot three more wins, only a good set of binoculars.

At-large bowl

Team: Washington (2-3, 1-1)

Home games (four): UCLA, Oregon, ASU, Washington State

Road games (three): Arizona, Stanford, Colorado

Comment: The presence of Arizona and Colorado on the upcoming schedule lies at the heart of our projection for the Huskies. The team we watched take Oregon State to the wire is good enough to thump the Wildcats and Buffaloes and find two more victories somewhere, somehow.

Non-qualifier

Team: Arizona (0-5, 0-2)

Home games (three): Washington, Cal, Utah

Road games (four): Colorado, USC, Washington State, ASU

Comment: With quarterback Jordan McCloud out for the season, there’s a better chance the losing streak extends into 2022 than ends in 2021.

Non-qualifier

Team: Cal (1-4, 0-2)

Home games (three): Colorado, Oregon State, USC

Road games (four): Oregon, Arizona, Stanford, UCLA

Comment: If the Bears sneak into the postseason — and we haven’t given up on them entirely — their salvation would be the cross-division schedule. Drawing Colorado and Arizona instead of Utah and ASU gives them a flicker of hope.

Non-qualifier

Team: Colorado (1-4, 0-2)

Home games (three): Arizona, Oregon State, Washington

Road games (four): Cal, Oregon, UCLA, Utah

Comment: Scoring 27 points in two conference games is bad, but this is worse: Only 17 were scored when the outcomes were in doubt against USC and ASU. The other 10 came in garbage time.

Non-qualifier

Team: Washington State (3-3, 2-2)

This article originally appeared on Pac-12 Hotline.

– Jon Wilner: jwilner@bayareanewsgroup.com. Wilner has been covering college sports for decades and is an AP top-25 football and basketball voter as well as a Heisman Trophy voter. He was named Beat Writer of the Year in 2013 by the Football Writers Association of America for his coverage of the Pac-12, won first place for feature writing in 2016 in the Associated Press Sports Editors writing contest and is a five-time APSE honoree.

A game against either of the Michigan schools, would be pretty good. It doesn’t look like we’ve ever played Michigan State before. We’ve been the Wolverines, however, 3 straight times.

Of course, win this Saturday, and I’ll be hoping for something bigger than the Las Vegas Bowl…

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Honest question - Utah fans. I wasn’t sure where to put this and didn’t want to create a new topic - so a thread on Utah’s season so far seemed like the logical place.

After last year, a lot of BYU fans were hooting and hollering about the number of BYU players taken in the NFL draft while no Utah players were taken.

At the time, the response I heard from a number of Utah fans was that the reason no Utah players were drafted was due to them all deciding to stick around for another year - which was going to be epic.

Now - I believe Jordan would’ve made a huge difference in how Utah played this year had he not been lost in that tragic accident (may he rest in peace). Both because he was a spectacular talent and because of the aftershock hanging over the team from his loss. So I get that this was a big impact.

But in comparison to descriptions before the season of everyone returning and having an experienced team, now I keep hearing how many young players are starting - on defense in particular - or are in the two deep.

Did you have major contributors outside of Lloyd and Ford who might’ve gone in the draft last year had they decided to move on? Was there a little too much optimism as to what Brewer might bring? Too much emphasis on a few great players like Ford and Lloyd while ignoring all of the other contributors that would be new? Is there something else I’m missing?

Honestly - I don’t think Utah is having a bad year. Ya’ll are going to win the south and go to the championship game, and you’ve got as good a shot as you’ve ever had at winning it.

I’m just surprised at some of the losses that I didn’t expect and at what seems like a good year when it felt like there were expectations of having a great one. And I’m curious what I was missing.

Utah isn’t having a bad year at all - just a pretty mediocre one in a mediocre Pac12. Just like BYU isn’t having a stellar year either… well stellar compared to recent past.

I don’t remember the claim that we didn’t have a lot of players to the NFL because they stayed back… I think the claim was our NFL caliber players didn’t declare. It was known after 2019 that it was going to be a rebuilding year of sorts with a lot of young talent. Were it not for Covid I think we would have struggled worse than this year in 2020.

So what we got this year was 2020 inexperience of sorts… +5 games. If you watch the Utes you’ll just see that there are a lot of unusual things for a Utah team going on. I would put our defense at decent to good… instead of elite like it has been. Our O is improving, but a lot of that is on Rising’s shoulders.

Yes I think we all though Brewer was going to be great, he did have a solid track record and plenty of experience. Maybe we should have been more alert that he and Rising were purportedly neck and neck.

So short answer is that this team 2021 was really 2020 - and 2020 was expected to be a rebuild year with a lot of youth.

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That sums it up nicely.

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That makes sense. Seems like Kyle is still saying that this might be the “most talented” team he’s ever had - but they’re still inexperienced.

I don’t recall seeing him say that about this team…you sure this wasn’t something you read on cougarbored?

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It may be the most talented genuinely - and I think overall class recruiting rankings might confirm that too. But as you know, you can’t teach experience.

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In addition to Ford + Lloyd, there was also a lot of interest on Kuithe’s future. But I’ve never heard anyone refer to the 2021 roster as “epic” that you claim you heard. I’ve always said the 2021 season had all the necessary ingredients but needed time to configure an awesome recipe, and that’s exactly how it’s turned out so far.

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I think the things that had Utah fans excited were:

  1. Brewer’s history at Baylor and his performance in spring game. Spring game is always fools gold because the D plays a 2 deep zone and doesn’t blitz.
  2. A returning OL. This was not as strong to begin with because of injuries and also because Simi Moala (now in transfer portal) seemed to have regressed although without injuries he probably does not start first 2 games.
  3. KW’s defenses are always good, so no worries that we would be young upfront and in back.

While losing to BYU and SDSU were bummers, both games were in reach at the end. What BYU fans will discover as they enter the Big 12 is that the game with Utah is important that week, but does not define the season.

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I think this does raise a good point though - who returned that could have tested NFL waters (or grad trasnfer)? I think Ford, Kuithe, Lloyd, others were mentioned? I have a vague recollection that one or two announced they were coming back for unfinished business and the rest all decided to do so as well. Am I misremembering. Between those key returnees and an exciting cadre of incoming transfers (with a few that left, like the WR that went to ASU), seems like there was a lot of excitement, albeit acknowledgement that there was inexperience (hence why starting Brewer seemed to make sense at the time - turns out he was in it for himself and couldn’t get it together fast enough and win over the team).

Another thing we learned this year - and was mentioned by Whitt & Scalley to the ESPN crew Flemming and Gilmore - is we’ve never had such a young DL, which is apparent in how we’ve gotten gashed in the run game.

Tafua is easily the best DL this year, and he typically doesn’t get burned on his assignment like we’ve seen from the youngsters. Fillinger, Carlton & Tafuna pass the eyeball test and have high ceilings, but they’ve gotten “rooked” a number of times, especially on run defense.

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Maybe Tafua - Bradlee Anae is still playing for the Cowboys, who Tafua roughly projects as, to me. High motor, physical, has all the techniques down, every down DE.

I don’t know what happened with Simi Moala, but he reminded me of Sam Tevi - not overwhelmingly dominant at Utah, but Tevi’s still playing in the league, proof that OL is a position where technique, footwork & teamwork are essential.

Guys that are too young for this hypothetical are JT Broughton and DeVaughn Vele (who to me projects like Tim Patrick).

Phillips could be a good NB in the league, which is a nice gig. Brice McCain played for a decade, which is impressive.

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He got waived on Monday.

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He passed waivers and was resigned by Cowboys’ practice squad.

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Anae strikes me as somebody who will be stuffing as much salary as possible, he’ll be OK, won’t get beat to hell physically, will have a nice nest egg to start out with.

Back when the Kemoeatu brothers retired - Chris got a kidney from Ma’ake - somebody mentioned they hoped they’d saved a lot of money. I knew the Kemoeatu brothers at Utah, including the middle brother Tevita. Very traditional Tongan family. They probably gave a lot of money away, and will be fine, in the Tongan “Feofo 'Ofani” culture of “love one another”.

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I currently defines THEIR season, not Utah’s. Which is why they’re about to have a rude awakening at just how difficult it really is to win week in and week out in a major conference. It took Utah several years and several recruiting classes to be able to get up to the point where they could consistently be competitive with their Pac-12 brethren. By that, I mean that a major injury to one of their players doesn’t destroy their season and make it impossible for them to compete. The lack of depth Utah had when they first joined the league just killed them. That’s not a problem anymore, but it will be for BYU in the Big 12.

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I was one of those people poo-pooing the idea of the constant grind of the power conferences when we were in the MWC. I think I was among the first to say I was wrong about that. Rude awakening, indeed.

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They will soon learn that there is a big difference between playing 4 or 5 P5 teams a year and playing 8 or 9 of those teams a year. The grind is real.

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I’m with you. That weekly grind, and recruiting and continuous development of players got my attention pretty quickly. Those and Colorado’s lack of success in the PAC.

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