Would you mind if we talked about Utah? Okay, thank you.
That’s just one of a heap of feats this autumn as they have themselves a fantastic time in Salt Lake City, and if they sustain their merriment against Arizona, Colorado and then No. 6 Oregon in the Pac-12 championship game, you and they won’t believe where they might be headed. If the College Football Playoff selection committee does pick Utah for the four-team playoff, you and they will be able to survey the 24 choices in the first six seasons of the playoff concept and declare Utah the most charming of all.
It would mean Utah, from the 30th-most-populous state, would have overcome an early road loss to Southern California, the ignorant football snobbery long practiced in the Eastern and Central time zones and the less-ignorant football snobbery long practiced by other Pac-12 teams toward Utah. It will have stood out from beneath the big three of LSU (10-0), Ohio State (10-0) and Clemson (11-0) and from a bale of one-loss teams that at present are No. 4 Georgia, No. 5 Alabama, Oregon, No. 8 Minnesota, No. 9 Penn State, No. 10 Oklahoma and No. 13 Baylor, each one of those in a huge, frothing thicket of 9-1.
Even better, Utah will have done all that with a team so dutiful that, after its 49-3 mauling Saturday night of a UCLA team that had been trending as Chip Kelly teams tend to trend (upward), the Utah coach said this to Kurt Kragthorpe of the Salt Lake Tribune:
“I think I’ve had to yell maybe one time all year. Literally.”
Good grief. What is this, a yoga class?
No, it is very much not a yoga class.
And while the coach continued soon with, “It’s just a very mature group that knows how to operate,” it does make one wonder what happened to cause the one yell. Was it when Northern Illinois sprang for 17 first-half points, obviously inappropriate behavior at Utah?
With so little knowledge of Utah, here’s a brief primer on Utah:
The nickname, Utes, refers to a Great Basin Native American tribe that granted permission for the name in 1972, just as Utah changed it from . . . Redskins. The Utes played in the Western Athletic Conference from 1962 to 1998, in the Mountain West Conference from 1999 to 2010 and in the Pac-12 from 2011 to now.
The stadium, Rice-Eccles, is named for two men who provided a handy component of stadium development: funding. The stadium setting is probably prettier than your stadium setting unless you’re UCLA or Washington or somebody. It is that rare college football stadium that also held Olympic Opening Ceremonies (2002), which was clearly an outsize attempt to boost football recruiting.
The coach, Kyle Whittingham, upgraded from defensive coordinator in December 2004 just as Urban Meyer finished 12-0 and left for Florida, and Whittingham has remained for the 15 seasons since with a steady excellence and without a trace of narcissism. By now, the fans presumably have forgiven him for playing linebacker at Brigham Young.
The quarterback, Tyler Huntley, came all the way from South Florida in 2016 and won this season’s distinction of Last Football Bowl Subdivision Quarterback To Throw A Pick. On Saturday night, he threw touchdown passes of 69 yards to Brant Kuithe and 83 yards to Samson Nacua, then uttered this beauty to reporters about his confidence in his receivers: “More confidence than I’ve got in myself — and I’ve got a lot of confidence.”
The team ranks No. 4 in scoring defense, No. 3 in total defense and No. 5 in yards-per-play defense. “You know, they sent the house a pretty good amount of the time,” said UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson, referring to a house you would not want sent toward you.
On one play in the second quarter Saturday night, Thompson-Robinson took the snap 15 yards from the Utes’ goal line and backed up, only to wind up like a cork in a torrent when Utah’s Julian Blackmon and Francis Bernard paid an uninvited visit. Thompson-Robinson fumbled, as would have you, the ball fleeing off nearby until Mika Tafua could collect it for a 68-yard touchdown return on which he rumbled beautifully for a 258-pound dude.
There have been 24 quarters of home defense played this season at Rice-Eccles, 18 of them quarter shutouts, and six guests have combined for 36 points and zero fun.
In the apparent race for No. 4, a good bet to specialize in welcome bile, there’s Georgia, whose collection of wins has grown into a fine bouquet, including a divinely talented Notre Dame, Florida and, as of Saturday, Auburn, after a 21-14 cats-and-dogs scuffle. Georgia’s coach, Kirby Smart, appeared to continue to molt further from his aggressive dullness when he said, in the news conference at Auburn, “How ’bout them [expletive] Dawgs?” There’s Nick Saban’s Alabama, which will try to figure out how to operate without Tua Tagovailoa, and which has figured out other stuff across time.
There’s Oregon, which could square off with Utah in a feast of a conference title game. There’s Penn State, which does play Saturday at Ohio State, which is not nice. There’s Oklahoma, which just stared down a 28-3 deficit at Baylor and won, 34-31, in regulation, after which quarterback Jalen Hurts said, “I put us in a horrible situation, and we found a way to come back,” and, showing his seasoning, “You’re remembered for what you did in November.”
There’s Baylor, which even in that defeat still ventured further upward unforeseeably, and which might tussle again with Oklahoma three weeks hence. And there’s Minnesota, whose 23-19 loss at Iowa on Saturday had enough what-ifs to keep one up nights.
Among all those people back in the wretched practice days of August, only Baylor and Minnesota would have challenged Utah in the category of unlikelihood. Alabama is the Meryl Streep of the College Football Playoff: always nominated. Georgia is a kingdom that almost won the national title two Januarys ago. Oklahoma has reached three of the first five playoffs. Oregon reached the first playoff final in 2014-15 before that fact went oft-forgotten after a slide that included a 4-8 season in 2016 and, in 2015, a jarring 62-20 home loss to . . . Utah.
There’s a chance for arguments aplenty, maybe even between Utah and a two-loss Georgia, or Utah and a one-loss Alabama, for which tiebreakers would not include the January 2009 Sugar Bowl, where Utah ransacked Alabama, 31-17. A cross-regional national semifinal between LSU’s intergalactic offense and Utah’s killjoy defense would be motley and curious. That’s getting too far ahead, but how dreary would life be without getting too far ahead?