Before Utah joined the Pac-12 in 2011, its football team made a lot of noise nationally as one of the best non-Power 5 programs in the country.
Under coach Urban Meyer, the Utes went 12-0 in 2004, routed Pittsburgh in the Fiesta Bowl and finished No. 4 in the final Associated Press Top 25. In 2008, under Kyle Whittingham, they went 13-0, stunned Nick Saban’s Alabama Crimson Tide in the Sugar Bowl and finished No. 2 in the AP poll.
Now in his 15th season as head coach and 26th season on the Utah staff, Whittingham believes this year’s Utes could be the best to come through Salt Lake City.
“I’ve got to believe this is the most talented team we’ve had here, at least since I have been here,” Whittingham said in the Deseret News this week. “That is a pretty bold statement because there have been some teams that have come through here that are really good, but I think when all is said and done and we look back, this might be the best of them all to this point.”
On Friday, Whittingham will lead the fifth-ranked Utes (11-1, 8-1 Pac-12) against No. 13 Oregon (10-2, 8-1) in the conference title game at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif.
In addition to seeking its first Pac-12 title, Utah is still in the hunt for a spot in the four-team College Football Playoff.
With No. 2 LSU (12-0) and No. 4 Georgia (11-1) battling in the SEC title game, someone ahead of Utah is guaranteed to lose. But, that doesn’t mean the Utes can lock up a CFP spot with a win against the Ducks.
If LSU loses, the CFP committee could wind up taking the Tigers and Georgia. The winner of the Big 12 title game between No. 6 Oklahoma (11-1) and No. 7 Baylor (11-1) will also have a legitimate claim on a top four spot.
Utah might have to not only beat Oregon, but make a statement in doing so.
Even if he believes it, Whittingham surely had the CFP committee in mind when he made the declaration that this might be the best-ever Utah team . It doesn’t hurt to at least throw that out there, especially when Whittingham’s been around for the best Utah teams.
Outside of Ike Armstrong, who coached Utah to 13 conference titles and five undefeated seasons from 1925-1949, Whittingham has been the most successful coach in school history.
Utah has had eight 10-win seasons, all with Whittingham on staff. He has now been the head coach for five of those 10-win seasons.
Whether this Utah team is better than the 2004 or 2008 teams is up for debate, but this is certainly Utah’s best team since joining the Pac-12. In fact, the Utes are enjoying one of the best seasons by any program during the Pac-12 era. Utah takes an eight-game winning streak into Friday’s title game, and the Utes are on track to become the first team in the Pac-12 era to lead the conference in rushing offense and defense, as well as pass efficiency offense and defense.
This suddenly becomes just another good season for the Utes if they don’t beat Oregon, though, and it won’t be easy. Prior to an upset loss at Arizona State on Nov. 23, the Ducks were viewed as the best team in the conference.
Battle within a battle
In Friday’s title game, there will be several great matchups, including Oregon’s receivers against Utah’s secondary and Oregon’s offensive line against Utah’s defensive line. It will also be intriguing to see arguably the two best quarterbacks in the conference – Oregon’s Justin Herbert and Utah’s Tyler Huntley – handle the pressure.
The best individual, one-on-one matchup, however, could be Oregon left tackle Penei Sewell against Utah defensive end Bradlee Anae.
Just a sophomore, Sewell is considered one of, if not the best tackle in the country and he hasn’t allowed a sack all season. Anae, who had 1.5 sacks against Colorado last week, is seventh nationally in sacks (12.5) and tied for first in Utah history with 29.5.
Earlier this week, CU’s Laviska Shenault announced he will skip his senior season and declare for the 2020 NFL Draft, but he wasn’t the only Pac-12 player to do so. Oregon State receiver Isaiah Hodgins and Arizona running back JJ Taylor also announced they’ll forego their final seasons and pursue the NFL. Hodgins led the Pac-12 with 13 touchdown receptions and was top three in receptions (86) and yards (1,171). Taylor was 11th in the conference in rushing yards (721) after finishing second a year ago, with 1,434. … Arizona State has fired offensive coordinator Rob Likens. The Sun Devils finished ninth in the Pac-12 in scoring (25.2 points per game) and 10th in total offense (379.6). Both numbers are ASU’s lowest since 2009.