All roads to the Pac-12 championship do not lead through Southern California. They don’t lead through Eugene or Palo Alto.
No, it is through a snow-capped town named Salt Lake City, Utah, that this Pac-12 title will be decided.
This has never been the case. Since Utah joined the conference in 2011, the Pac-12 champion has been either Oregon or Stanford.
But this is a strange year indeed for the West Coast conference. Oregon has been left vulnerable with the absence of Marcus Mariota, though Utah was happy to exploit dozens of other now-glaring weaknesses, namely in a secondary that will not bring the Ducks back to the national championship. Stanford hasn’t been the same since Jim Harbaugh left. And the Southern California teams, USC and UCLA, can’t seem to get out of their own way, whether on the field or off.
All of this culminated in a Pac-12 race for supremacy up for grabs, and Utah has seized full control. The Utes were considered a dark horse contender when the season began, yes, but anybody who says they saw this coming is either from Salt Lake City or just flat out lying.
It seems a bit strange to see the Utes ranked No. 5 in the AP poll. Think about it: How many people in the country would bet on Utah moneyline over Alabama, or LSU? Probably not many, but that’s the current state of college football. We now live in a world where Utah can beat Oregon by 35, in Eugene, and Temple is receiving votes in the polls.
This, though, doesn’t feel like a fluke, some ephemeral phenomenon with an inevitable burnout to come. For the past two years, Utah has had ostensibly all the pieces save one: a quarterback. Travis Wilson had been an ok quarterback. Not great, not terrible — ok. But it was fine, because Utah was consistently finishing well, though not at a level high enough to claim a conference championship. Weird things always seemed to happen to the Utes, like a still inexplicable loss to Washington State in 2014.
No matter how many yards Devontae Booker ran for —1,512 last year – Utah struggled in the big ones, and occasionally the random trap game. It appears, at least for the time being, that Utah has filled its annual weakness with a much improved Wilson.
A team simply does not march into Eugene and hand the Ducks, still a fine football team no matter how you shake it, their worst loss in nearly 40 years without a supremely talented quarterback. Wilson’s visible improvement from last season to this is the No. 1 factor in Utah’s remarkable success this year.
He’s completing nearly 70 percent of his passes and running for 8.7 yards per carry, which is significant because he takes to his feet a fair amount. Booker was the sure thing, and he has proved as such. He has run for 443 yards and four touchdowns, and soon it’s likely he’ll see bigger gaps, as teams are now required to pay some mind to Wilson.
Next Saturday, the last two undefeated teams in the Pac-12 will square off. Cal will get its first test of the season after jumping out to a 5-0 start, and the Bears have the unenviable task of doing so in Salt Lake City.
But that’s good for Cal, in a way, because the road to the conference title leads through that very city.