Just one Pac-12 stands through six weeks with a perfect record: Utah, which survived a 30-24 test against previously unbeaten Cal.
The Utes know the rarefied air of being alone with an unblemished record. In 2008, they were the only team in the entire Football Bowl Subdivision without a loss once the season ended.
If the 2015 season is starting to feel like 2008 for head coach Kyle Whittingham, Utah football fans and the entire program, it’s understandable. Not only are the Utes alone in their conference as the sole undefeated, Saturday’s win bore resemblance to some of those classic victories that buoyed the 2008 Utes.
Cal committed six turnovers, including an uncharacteristic five interceptions thrown by quarterback Jared Goff, yet drove into Utah territory with an opportunity to win in the final minute.
The outstanding Utah defense bowed up, forcing a turnover on downs to secure the win and remain the pace-setter in an increasingly unpredictable Pac-12.
Despite the loss, Cal has the make-up of a team that can win the conference’s North division. Just maybe, Saturday’s encounter in Rice-Eccles Stadium will be replayed in December in Levi’s Stadium.
If not, the Golden Bears proved deserving of their Top 25 ranking. Much like another Pac-12 team Utah beat in an October contest in that 2008 season, Oregon State, Cal should finish the season ranked.
Utah escaped that meeting with Oregon State a 31-28 winner. The Oregon State win was the second of five Utah won by single digits that dream season.
Almost halfway through the 2015 campaign, Utah has almost half as many single-digit wins. The Utes opened 2015 in much the same fashion as 2008, beating Michigan in a nail-biter.
Of course, this Michigan team is proving to be quite a bit better than that historically bad Wolverine bunch in 2008. With its shutout of Northwestern Saturday, Michigan is a winner of five straight since the Week 1 loss at Utah and has blanked each of its last three opponents.
Jim Harbaugh has the Wolverines looking very much like College Football Playoff material. The same is very much true for Whittingham’s Utes.
And, much like Michigan’s play since seeing Utah, that’s another difference between the 2008 campaign and current. This time around, should the Utes remain unbeaten, they’ll receive the championship opportunity they arguably should have seven years ago.
That Utah team could not shake off the stigma of playing in a non-BCS conference, despite playing and beating more ranked opponents ranked in the final regular-season polls than power-league teams like USC and Alabama.
Utah’s small-conference stigma was compounded by the number of tight, sometimes ugly games it played. Utah needed a fourth-quarter comeback to win a 13-10 rock fight with TCU late in the season, one week after slinking by New Mexico by the same score.
As members of the Pac-12, the 2015 Utes would need not worry about a repeat exclusion. The equation is simple: Win and they’re in.
Reaching the Playoff would be somewhat poetic for this program. Its perfect 2008 was a key catalyst in the push for an expanded championship system.
Seven years later, Utah just might get to reap the fruit of its past labors.