Just three weeks ago, the Utah football team went to Stanford on a Saturday night with its season essentially on the line.

The Utes were facing an 0-3 start to Pac-12 play if they couldn't beat the then-No. 14 ranked Cardinal.

Now, Utah (5-2, 3-2 Pac-12) is the hottest team in the South and the front-runner to win the division for the first time.

That's how quickly things can change in the volatile South, which is up for grabs with five weeks to play. Every South team has two or three conferences losses.

"I think everybody in the Pac-12 South almost thinks they have a chance," said CU head coach Mike MacIntyre, whose own team (5-2, 2-2) is a half game out of first and just a game out of last.

Right now, the leader in the race is Utah, which kicked off a three-game winning streak with a 40-21 rout of Stanford on Oct. 6. The Utes followed that upset of the Cardinal with a 42-10 rout of Arizona and running away from USC for a 41-28 win.

Utah visits suddenly sizzling UCLA (2-5, 2-2) on Friday night.

"Staying on an even keel, trying to avoid being too high or too low," Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said this week about being consistent in the Pac-12. "We just want to be consistent in our approach. This group has been great about that. Their preparation each week has been very consistent. No peaks or valleys, they come out and take care of their business on the practice field, in the meeting room and that is really where it starts. They have done a great job of that."


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The road won't be easy for Utah, which plays three of its last four conference games on the road (at UCLA, Arizona State and Colorado) and has a home date with Oregon.

Utah, however, has gotten hot in large part because of its defense. The Utes have the nation's No. 1 run defense and rank 16th in points allowed. Quarterback Tyler Huntley is also playing his best football.

Whittingham, of course, is not getting too far ahead of himself.

"We have UCLA and that is our challenge right now," he said. "You can't look past anyone in this conference."

Minshew a rising star

It's been quite a rise for Washington State quarterback Gardner Minshew, who a year ago was a part-time starter at East Carolina.

In February, he announced he was leaving ECU to transfer to Alabama, with the idea of being a backup and getting a jump on a potential career in coaching. Ultimately, he changed his mind and transferred to Wazzu.

Now, he's leading the country in passing (392.1 yards per game), has the Cougars (6-1, 3-1) competing for the North title after a 34-20 win against Oregon, and has quickly become a bit of a cult hero in Pullman, Wash.

"After the game, I started thinking, 'Man, I think I made the right choice coming here,'" Minshew, wearing sunglasses and a backwards cap, casually said after the win against the Ducks. "I love it here. I love these guys on this team. I'd do anything for them, they'd do anything for me. I'm just proud to be a Coug right now."

Minshew has arguably been the Pac-12's player of the year as he has seemingly mastered Mike Leach's offense this fall. Although Minshew wasn't a full-time starter at ECU, Leach said he was immediately impressed with Minshew's toughness, competitiveness and the way he threw the ball.

That has all come together for Minshew this season.

"In our case, he's just real competitive, he picked up the package real fast, he's extremely smart and elevated the play of the other people around him," Leach said. "I haven't dealt with anybody more motivated. I think the motivation and determination alone was a big part of it."

The Cougars can take another step toward the North title on Saturday with a visit to No. 24 Stanford (5-2, 3-1).

Notable

Arizona State (3-4, 1-3) has a chance to spoil USC's chances in the South on Saturday, as the Trojans (4-3, 3-2) could be starting third-string quarterback Jack Sears. The Trojans, however, are 19-0 at the Los Angeles Coliseum under head coach Clay Helton, and ASU is 0-3 on the road this season. ... Arizona hasn't announced whether Khalil Tate or Rhett Rodriguez will start at quarterback this week against Oregon. Regardless, the Wildcats are 112th nationally in competition percentage (53.3).

Contact staff writer Brian Howell at howellb@dailycamera.com or twitter.com/BrianHowell33