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In a bizarre season, Utah-Colorado game has crucial implications for Pac-12

If No. 21 Colorado beats Utah Friday, it will finish 5-0 overall and 4-0 in the Pac-12 South Division standings — and still could be denied a spot in Pac-12 championship game. Here’s why

Utah Utes defensive end Mika Tafua (42) sacks Colorado Buffaloes quarterback Steven Montez (12) during the first half of an NCAA football game at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 30, 2019.
Utah Utes defensive end Mika Tafua (42) sacks Colorado Buffaloes quarterback Steven Montez (12) during the first half of an NCAA football game at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 30, 2019. Tafua and the Utes will play the Buffs Friday night in Boulder.
Colter Peterson, Deseret News

It’s been a strange year in college football and it’s been especially strange in the Pac-12.

The league was the last of the Power Five conferences to start the truncated season — the first week in November — amid the pandemic.

How strange has it been?

Utah’s first two games were canceled due to COVID-19 issues and Arizona State has played only two games so far for the same reason. The Utes had their game against ASU canceled midweek and hours later they had a new game scheduled, playing instead at Washington.

And when Utah’s game against UCLA was canceled on a Friday, the Bruins hastily scheduled a contest against Cal that was played two days later, on a Sunday morning, at the Rose Bowl.

Meanwhile, the league’s erstwhile best shot at getting a team into the College Football Playoff, Oregon, was ranked in the top 10 before losing back-to-back games the last two weeks.

“This year is weird all the way around,” said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. “There are things every week that are bizarre in my estimation. It’s a crazy year.”

Currently, No. 16 USC (4-0) is the Pac-12’s highest ranked team, while No. 21 Colorado (4-0) joined the rankings this week.

This is where things get even weirder — if the Buffaloes beat the Utes Friday night in Boulder, they will finish the regular season 5-0 overall and 4-0 in the Pac-12 South standings. Yet if the Trojans beat cross-town rival UCLA Saturday, USC would claim the division title and advance to the Pac-12 championship game Dec. 18.

The Trojans would claim the Pac-12 South crown by virtue of more conference wins. The week that USC and Colorado were supposed to play, on Nov. 28, the Trojans couldn’t play due to COVID-19 issues.

The Buffs, who played a nonconference game against San Diego State the week the USC game was canceled, have had two of their games canceled (the other was against Arizona State) due to their opponents’ COVID-19 issues — circumstances out of their control.

So it’s conceivable that an undefeated Colorado team could be idle while USC plays a two-loss Oregon team in the Pac-12 title game with a New Year’s Six bowl bid at stake. The Ducks (3-2) host Washington (3-1) Saturday.

It’s also conceivable that if the Pac-12’s only ranked teams, USC and Colorado, fall this weekend, the league’s national reputation will be tarnished even more.

If the Buffaloes win Friday but get shut out of playing in their second-ever Pac-12 championship game, how would that go over in Boulder?

“I’d be disappointed for sure,” said coach Karl Dorrell.

Of course, Dorrell is focused on beating Utah Friday. If the Buffaloes manage to get past the Utes, then he will be pulling for his alma mater, and former employer, UCLA, to knock off USC on Saturday.

“We can’t think about a week from now. All that would be for naught if we don’t play well this week. We’ve got to take care of this week,” Dorrell said. “We know that’s going to be a tough task against a really good team. We’re a really good team but we have to play better. This is going to be a big test for Friday night.”

Meanwhile, the Pac-12’s bowl opportunities are shrinking. On Monday, the inaugural LA Bowl, which was set to match up a team from the Pac-12 against a Mountain West opponent, announced it has been canceled this season. It’s the 11th bowl that has been canceled because of the pandemic.

Five bowls with Pac-12 tie-ins have now been canceled, although the league announced last week that it has secured a tie-in with the Armed Forces Bowl, playing against a team from the Southeastern Conference.

To qualify for a bowl, a team must have at least a .500 record. Utah is 1-2 right now.

“We’d love to become bowl eligible,” Whittingham said. “That’s something that’s always going to be part of our goals and what we want to accomplish.”

The Utes are coming off their first win of the season, a 30-24 decision over Oregon State last Saturday. With fewer days to prepare, Utah started getting ready for Colorado as soon as the OSU game ended.

“We’re going into Colorado on a short week, a short week for both teams … a Friday-nighter,” Whittingham said. “So we’ve got to get going right away. There’s no time to really enjoy this victory. We’ve got to get moving on the Buffaloes immediately.”

USC is looking to reach its first Pac-12 championship game since 2017. The Trojans whipped Washington State on Sunday, 38-13.

Where would USC be now without the schedule disruptions caused by the pandemic? The Trojans were scheduled to kick off the season against No. 1 Alabama and end the regular season against No. 2 Notre Dame, not to mention they were scheduled to play conference games against Oregon and Washington.

As it stands now, USC, which had to rally in the fourth quarter to beat ASU 28-27 at home in its opener, is on track to play for the Pac-12 title.

“You always want to play meaningful games in December and here we are,” said USC coach Clay Helton. “We’ve got the opportunity to continue to lead our half of the league and needed this one (last Sunday) with how well Colorado’s playing right now. It’s an important game for us.”

In a weird way, there are a few important games for the Pac-12 this weekend.