However unlikely, with two conference losses, Utah is still alive in the Pac-12 championship race.

Last season, four results went two-conference-loss Utah’s way in the final weekend of the season — Utah won at Colorado, Washington won at Washington State, UCLA won at Cal and Oregon State won vs. Oregon — and the Utes won a four-step tiebreaker and beat USC in the Pac-12 championship game.

“We were in a very similar situation last year. Ended up everything worked out for us, but we’re not concerned with that right now. We’re concerned with trying to get a win against Arizona State,” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said.

That result is not likely to repeat itself this season — Utah would have to win out, and a lot of results would have to fall the Utes’ way. But as we learned last season, crazy things can happen.

Let’s go with the more realistic scenario, though.

Utah has four games remaining on its schedule. The Utes start the home stretch by hosting Arizona State on Saturday at Rice-Eccles Stadium, then hit the road for games at No. 5 Washington and Arizona before wrapping up the regular season vs. Colorado.

Coming off a big loss against Oregon, Utah is going to be hungry to get back into the win column vs. Arizona State. Sun Devils head coach Kenny Dillingham has done his best after inheriting a mess of a situation after Herm Edwards’ firing last season. The youngest head coach in college football has had to deal with transfers leaving and a self-imposed bowl ban, but ASU snapped a six-game losing streak last Saturday, beating Washington State.

Utes on the air

No. 18 Utah (6-2, 3-2 Pac-12)
vs. Arizona State (2-6, 1-4 Pac-12)
Saturday, 12 p.m. MDT
Rice-Eccles Stadium
TV: Pac-12 Network
Radio: ESPN 700/92.1 FM

Dillingham, who was Oregon’s offensive coordinator under Dan Lanning last year, employs concepts of the Ducks’ current offense that gave Utah fits last week. Like Bo Nix, Trenton Bourguet gets the ball out fast, but with all due respect to Bourguet, Oregon’s quarterback is on another level.

The Utes are favored by 11 in Vegas, and ESPN analytics give the Utes an 88% chance to win. Any given Saturday, anything can happen — the Sun Devils had Washington on upset alert — but let’s pencil that in as a Ute win.

Michael Penix Jr. and Washington have stumbled as of late, beating Arizona State 15-7 and then defeating Stanford 42-33. Both teams, especially Stanford, were right in the game with the Huskies until the end, but Washington is 8-0 and No. 5 in the College Football Playoff rankings.

ESPN analytics gives Washington a 74% chance to win vs. Utah, and given the struggles the Utes had against Nix and Oregon’s offense, it’s going to be tough for Utah to stop Penix Jr. (though the Utes did shut down Caleb Williams and USC’s offense).

Let’s assume a loss, which puts the last nail in the coffin for Utah’s Pac-12 title hopes. Then it all becomes about what bowl the Utes will go to at the end of the season.

Arizona, picked eighth in the Pac-12 preseason media poll, is 5-3, with an overtime loss at Mississippi State, a 31-24 loss vs. Washington and a 43-41 triple-overtime loss at USC. The Wildcats dismantled Washington State 44-6 in Pullman and beat Oregon State 27-24 last week. On the road, it’s a coin flip of a game, with Utah given a 51% chance to win by ESPN analytics.

The Utes close the regular season against Colorado at Rice-Eccles Stadium, which after the Buffaloes’ 3-0 start, felt like it could be a huge finale. Since then, Colorado’s settled back to earth with a 4-4 record, but besides a 42-6 loss against Oregon, the Buffaloes haven’t been blown out. Utah has a 83% chance to win according to ESPN analytics, and I’d predict a win here, but the “Rumble in the Rockies” is not an easy win like it has been in years prior.

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With a single loss the rest of the way, the Utes will miss the Pac-12 title game, which they’ve played in for four of the last five seasons, including the last two. Making it to the championship game has been the standard that has been set for this program.

Assuming no more than one loss for the Pac-12 champion, the title winner will be well-positioned to be the conference’s first College Football Playoff team since Washington in the 2016 season, and the runner-up likely off to a non-playoff New Year’s Six Bowl.

Does a 9-3 or 8-4 season with a trip to, say, the Las Vegas Bowl vs. Wisconsin or the Holiday Bowl vs. Duke move the needle for Utah fans?

In a normal year, that result might be disappointing. That’s how high the bar has been raised in Salt Lake City in the past five years.

This season has been anything but normal. Utah has succeeded the best they can with a list of injuries that includes quarterback Cam Rising, tight ends Brant Kuithe and Thomas Yassmin, running backs Micah Bernard and Chris Curry, wide receiver Mycah Pittman, linebacker Lander Barton, and defensive end Logan Fano, to name a few, along with a host of others who missed at least a couple games this season.

“It’s been a very challenging year, to say the least, but our guys have responded. The guys that have had the opportunity to step up and be the next man up guy and player have done a great job doing that,” Whittingham said.

When you’re missing your starting quarterback and emotional leader, his favorite weapon at tight end, a versatile running back and Utah’s best pass-catcher out of the backfield, a rising star at linebacker, a defensive end that was having a breakout season, and lots of depth, it’s going to be tough sledding.

Utah just kept winning, losing only one game at Oregon State in September, and went into the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and beat USC. Utah was 6-1 entering its matchup vs. Oregon, but it just felt like the house of cards could collapse at any point, and that’s what happened on Saturday.

No. 6 Oregon looks like one of the best teams that has ever come through Rice-Eccles Stadium, and would have a really good shot to beat Utah even with the Utes at full strength. Utah was just outmatched, losing 35-6 to Oregon, and Whittingham would say postgame that “it was worse than what the score indicated.”

Barring a miraculous return to the Pac-12 championship, what would Whittingham consider a successful season considering the circumstances?

The longtime Utah coach didn’t bite when asked that question on Tuesday night.

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“Going 1-0 this week would make it a successful week and that’s our objective,” Whittingham said.

In this writer’s opinion, when you step back and look at all of the injuries Utah has had to deal with this season, I would consider 9-3 — and possibly a 10-win season if the Utes can win their first bowl game since 2017 — a pretty successful season. It’s not the magical run of the last two years, but a nine-or-ten-win season, including a bowl victory is something Utah’s team could be proud of.

The Utes still have lots to play for — a long shot at the Pac-12 championship game, or a chance to get a win in a bowl for the first time since 2017.

It all starts on Saturday against Arizona State.

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