SALT LAKE CITY — If there was a defining moment in fifth-ranked Utah’s 11-1 season it may have come in the most unlikely of places. Two weeks after the Utes dropped a disappointing decision at USC, they traveled to Oregon State’s Reser Stadium and left with 52-7 win over the Beavers.

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“We went over there and just cut loose and had a huge, lopsided victory,” said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. “That is — at least in my own mind — (when) I thought this team had a chance to be special if we keep this up.”

The Utes have won eight straight games since the loss in Los Angeles. Turns out, that’s exactly what they had to do in order to win the South Division and advance to the Pac-12 Championship game for the second consecutive year.

Before the win in Corvallis, Oregon, Utah handed Washington State a 38-13 setback. Following the trip to Oregon, the Utes overpowered Arizona State (21-3) and California (35-0).

Utah’s record in Pac-12 play


2011: 4-5


2012: 3-6


2013: 2-7


2014: 5-4


2015: 6-3 (South Division co-champions)


2016: 5-4


2017: 3-6


2018: 6-3 (South Division champions)


2019: 8-1 (South Division champions)


Aside from a 33-28 decision at Washington the following week, Utah resumed its large margin of victories. The Utes trounced UCLA (49-3), Arizona (35-7) and Colorado (45-15) to finish off the program’s best Pac-12 record at 8-1.

At season’s end, Whittingham made quite a declaration. He’s been with the team since 1994 and became the head coach in 2005, posting a record of 131-62.

“I’ve got to believe this is the most talented team we’ve had here, at least since I have been here,” Whittingham said. “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.”

As attractive as a Rose Bowl berth is, Utah’s success may lead to something beyond that. The Utes are currently fifth in the College Football Playoff rankings — one position out of a spot in the national semifinals. The final rankings will be announced Sunday (10 a.m., ESPN). 

“We haven’t paid a whole lot of attention to it. We certainly understand the big picture, but you control the controllable and all we can control is trying to get a win on Friday against Oregon and then it is out of our hands at that point,” Whittingham said. “We don’t spend a lot of time thinking about it. It doesn’t really seem odd or strange either way, whatever our fate is it will be good. I can tell you it will be good no matter what happens if we are able to win.”