The list of unexpected early-season developments in the Pac-12 is longer than Kyle Whittingham’s tenure in Salt Lake City. Near the top is a team best known for its consistency of effort and success: What in the world is wrong with Utah?
A depth chart loaded with returnees has looked wide-eyed and inexperienced.
A team known for dominating the lines of scrimmage has been overrun in the trenches in back-to-back weeks.
A special teams unit that’s typically among the best in the conference has repeatedly broken down.
A program that typically churns through non-conference foes has dropped two of three games for the first time since joining the Pac-12 and is rapidly losing ground in pursuit of its seventh-consecutive bowl appearance (in non-pandemic seasons).
Utah (1-2) must win five of its last nine to qualify for the postseason.
The Utes are heavily favored Saturday against Washington State and should be in comparable position twice later in the year (Colorado and Arizona).
But those three wins would only push Utah’s win total to four, and six are required for a bowl berth.
Meanwhile, two North division foes, Oregon State and Stanford, appear much more stout than they did a few weeks ago, and the Utes are on the road against both. The remaining four opponents (UCLA, USC, Arizona State and Oregon) always stood as difficult matchups.
Given the results to date and the opponents to come, the Utes are inching toward desperation.
Lose this week, and it’s time to panic.
Win this week, and there’s a brief opportunity to exhale.
To the latest bowl projections …
College Football Playoff
Comment: The Ducks (3-0) are only a CFP lock if they’re undefeated. If they lose once, other factors could impact the selection process, including Ohio State’s performance in the Big Ten and Oregon’s overall strength of schedule. They might need two or three teams from the Pac-12 to finish in the selection committee’s final top 25. That’s hardly a given at this point.
Rose Bowl (vs. Big Ten)
Comment: Despite the loss, UCLA (2-1) remains the team most likely to fill the No. 2 spot in the Pac-12 selection order, regardless of whether it’s the Rose or Alamo bowl. But the situation is fluid; by next week, we might have the Bruins slotted for El Paso.
Alamo Bowl (vs. Big 12)
Team: Arizona State
Comment: While the loss in Provo has no impact on ASU (2-1) within the division, the likelihood of a team under NCAA investigation participating in the conference championship game — or representing the Pac-12 in the Rose Bowl — has seemingly diminished.
Las Vegas Bowl (vs. Big Ten)
Comment: The Trojans (2-1, 1-1 Pac-12) are neither as bad as they looked against Stanford or as good as they looked in the second half against Washington State. They remain very talented and highly flawed, and we’re likely to see that dynamic play out over the next two months with wildly inconsistent performances.
Holiday Bowl (vs. ACC)
Comment: No team’s postseason prospects have brightened more in the past two weeks. With Tanner McKee in charge, the Cardinal (2-1, 1-0) looks more than competent on offense. If the defense holds, this could be a seven- or eight-win season.
Sun Bowl (vs. ACC)
Comment: We would be mildly surprised if the Utes name their starting quarterback before the end of the week — clarity only aids Washington State’s preparation — and deeply surprised if it’s not Cam Rising.
LA Bowl (vs. Mountain West)
Team: Oregon State
Comment: If you’re looking for a sleeper, consider the Beavers. They have a quarterback (Chance Nolan) who makes everyone better and possess a running game capable of controlling the ball in tight games, on the road, in the fourth quarter. If the LA Bowl is their current floor, then Las Vegas is their ceiling.
ESPN Bowl (Armed Forces, Gasparilla or First Responders)
Comment: We have included the Bears (1-2) in the postseason because their cross-division dates with Arizona and Colorado make the bowl math easier. But they would be wise to reach the five-win mark before the finishing stretch against USC, Stanford and UCLA. Winning one of those three is a manageable proposition. Winning two is not.
Team: Arizona. At this point, we have a hard time seeing the Wildcats in the postseason until 2023, at the earliest.
Team: Colorado. The bowl math has swung hard against the Buffaloes (1-2), who will be favored in one game the rest of the way (Arizona). Given the state of the offense and strength of the schedule, they could very well be eliminated before November begins.
Team: Washington. We’re not buying the Saturday success; everybody scores on Arkansas State. Now, if the Huskies (1-2) consistently move the ball and finish drives in the next two weeks (Cal and Oregon State), we will adjust the projection and slot them into a lower-tier bowl.
Team: Washington State. Good chance the Cougars (1-2/0-1) look back on Utah State as the game that cost them a postseason bid. They must win five of nine and the lineup includes ASU, Cal, Utah, Oregon and Washington on the road, plus BYU at home. We don’t see it.