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With Pac-12 South title virtually out of reach, what do the Utah Utes have left to gain from 2020 season?

With 2020 season not counting towards eligibility, experience for young players will be key in Utah’s three remaining contests

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Utah Utes players gather on the field.

Utah Utes players gather on the field before the game between the Utah Utes and the USC Trojans at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 21, 2020.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

So far, Utah’s 2020 football season has been about on par with 2020 as a whole.

COVID-19 has rocked the nation, and it rocked Utah’s football program.

First, the Pac-12 postponed fall sports on Aug. 11, following suit as other conferences did the same. The ACC and Big 12 started regular-season football games on Sept. 12, while the SEC began on Sept. 26. The Big Ten waited about a month longer, beginning on Oct. 24, and the Pac-12 was the last of the Power Five conferences to play football, kicking off on Nov. 7.

Much has been debated about the Pac-12’s decision to wait until November, but the conference’s hands were tied due to restrictions in California and Oregon not allowing USC, UCLA, Cal, Oregon and Oregon State to practice over the summer. Once clearance was given in those states, the Pac-12 had to have a run-up period to get the teams that hadn’t practiced in the offseason up to speed.

With added pressure to have the season, including the conference championship game, in the fall instead of the spring so it could be done before the final College Football Playoff rankings come out on Dec. 20, the Pac-12 laid out a six-games-in-six-weeks schedule with virtually no wiggle room if a team got COVID-19.

Unfortunately for Utah, disaster struck fast.

Its opening game against Arizona was canceled after COVID-19 cases left Utah without enough available scholarship players to play. The same thing happened before its second game against UCLA. Suddenly, the Utes were down to just four games. Meanwhile, USC and Colorado raced out to 2-0 starts. To win the Pac-12 South for the third time in a row, Utah would have to basically go undefeated over their four remaining games, including beating USC and Colorado.

After the Utes’ 33-17 loss to USC, a path to a division crown is extremely unlikely, barring some major chaos. First, the Utes would have to win out and go 3-1, beating Washington, Oregon State and Colorado. Of those three, only Oregon State is at home. Then, USC would have to lose its final two games (Washington State and UCLA) and Colorado would have to lose twice (the Buffaloes play Arizona and Utah, following a nonconference game with San Diego State this weekend). Also, Arizona State would have to lose to either UCLA or Arizona. All of that is assuming every Pac-12 South game gets played from next week on and counts specifically on Utah beating Colorado.

On Tuesday, another blow: Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said that sophomore quarterback Cam Rising, who was knocked out of the USC game with a shoulder injury early in the second quarter, “looks like he’s done for the season.” Utah’s game against Arizona State was canceled and now Utah will travel to face 2-0 Washington this Saturday.

So, if the Utes have just three games left in their season and won’t go to the Pac-12 championship game barring some extreme craziness, what’s left to play for?

In a normal year when they were eliminated from Pac-12 South contention, the Utes would try and become bowl eligible and shoot for the best bowl possible. But COVID-19 has also wreaked havoc on the Pac-12’s bowl options. In a normal season, here are the bowls with Pac-12 tie-ins:

  • Rose Bowl (Pac-12 champion vs. Big Ten champion)
  • Alamo Bowl (vs. Big 12)
  • Las Vegas Bowl (vs. SEC)
  • LA Bowl (vs. Mountain West)
  • Holiday Bowl (vs. ACC)
  • Redbox Bowl (vs. Big Ten)
  • Sun Bowl (vs. ACC)
  • Independence Bowl (vs. Army)

That’s eight bowls with Pac-12 tie-ins in a normal year, but two of those bowls — the Redbox Bowl and Holiday Bowl — have already been canceled, leaving just six bowls with Pac-12 tie-ins. More bowls will probably be canceled — there are already reports the Las Vegas Bowl will join the cancellations. The Pac-12 didn’t relax bowl eligibility this year despite the NCAA allowing any team to make a bowl — teams have to go .500 or better to get into a game.

If Utah’s season has any intrigue left from a competitive standpoint, besides playing for pride, it’s this: The Utes have to win at least two of their remaining three to go bowling. Utah hasn’t missed a bowl game since 2013. After its season-opening loss to the Trojans, ESPN and CBS Sports project the Utes in the Sun Bowl, a bowl the Utes haven’t played in since 2011, when 7-5 Utah beat Georgia Tech 30-27 in overtime.

Right now, Whittingham is focused on the 2020 season.

“Nothing feels regular right now. Having that stadium empty was bizarre. It was weird. But this is not a season where we are just working on the future. We want to compete now and we want to win now,” Whittingham said after the USC game.

Of course, Whittingham and Utah will be trying to get the most out of this season, finishing strong and making a bowl game. But more broadly, the final three games of this four-game season — one that is simultaneously forgettable from a football standpoint and unforgettable because of the incredible circumstances of it — should now be geared toward developing for the 2021 season.

The next three games will be extremely valuable for the Utes, getting underclassmen game experience with virtually no risk from a competitive standpoint and allowing the team to continue to mesh.

Of the 57 players that participated in last Saturday’s game, a total of 33 were underclassmen — 18 freshmen and 15 sophomores. Nowhere was this more apparent than in Utah’s secondary. Sophomore JaTravis Broughton and freshman Clark Phillips III started at cornerback, while freshman Nate Ritchie started at safety.

Freshmen safeties Kamo’i Latu, Jake Biggs and Zemaiah Vaughn and freshmen cornerbacks Faybian Marks and Caine Savage all played in Saturday’s game, as well as defensive ends Xavier Carlton and Van Fillinger, linebacker Sione Fotu and defense tackle Tennessee Pututau. Sophomores on defense included linebackers Hayden Furey and Andrew Mata’afa and cornerbacks Aaron Lowe and Malone Mataele.

On offense, sophomore quarterback Rising started, along with freshman Jaren Kump and redshirt freshmen Keaton Bills and Sataoa Laumea on the offensive line. Sophomore offensive linemen Braeden Daniels, Paul Maile and Simi Moala also played. Elsewhere on offense, sophomore running back Jordan Wilmore, redshirt freshman Micah Bernard and freshman Ty Jordan all got carries. Redshirt freshman wide receiver Devaughn Vele had a catch and sophomore receivers Cameron Gardner and Dominique Thompson participated, along with tight end Thomas Yassmin. Kicker Jadon Redding is a sophomore, along with punter Ben Lennon.

This extra game experience for Utah’s underclassmen will pay off down the line.

The NCAA ruled that any athlete completing in a fall sport will receive an additional year of eligibility and an additional year to complete it, plus any senior that decides to return to school in 2021 will not count against that school’s scholarship limit. In other words, regardless of the number of games an athlete plays in 2020, this season doesn’t count on their eligibility, meaning the entire team — seniors included — could be back for 2021 at their same eligibility level. Seniors this year will be seniors in 2021. Freshmen this year will be freshmen in 2021. Though some seniors will undoubtedly choose to move on, others could come back for another season.

Then add in Utah’s 2021 class, currently ranked 34th in the nation and fifth in the Pac-12 according to 247 Sports, which includes four-star linebackers Ethan Calvert and Mason Tufaga, four-star quarterback Peter Costelli and four-star running back Ricky Parks. Utah’s current average recruit rating according to 247 Sports is 0.8736, making it — on paper — the Utes’ best class ever.

Utah will have a wealth of new talent coming in and what could be the vast majority of the 2020 team coming back, setting them up nicely for fall of 2021. If all goes well next year, a COVID-19 vaccine should be available for the country, fans can pack Rice-Eccles Stadium once again, and life — and football — will return to normal.