As the sun sets in the West and East Coasters are polishing off their 16th Keystone Light of the day, the eyes of the college football landscape will shift to Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City. It may have taken some by surprise that the Utes have been this outstanding, but don't tell that to Kyle Whittingham's bunch.
"Pac-12 teams are just beating each other up is what's going on here. Right now, it's wide open," says Whittingham himself, adding, "There isn't a clear-cut favorite. I couldn't be more excited to see how it all unfolds." We're right there with ya Mr. W.
The Utah Utes are ranked in front of the mighty USC Trojans. Were it not for their one-point loss to conference bottom-dweller Washington State, who knows how high the Utes would be ranked. Based on the pollster's fascinations with undefeated records at this point, it's safe to assume they'd be inside the top-10.
A combined nine points have decided Utah's last three games; and to say the meat grinder of the schedule is just beginning would be an understatement. Five straight weeks of USC, Arizona State, Oregon, Stanford and Arizona not only represent five top-25 teams, but also the five best teams in the entire conference besides the Utes themselves. (For argument's sake, we're leaving the Bruins out of this discussion until they prove they're not a one-trick pony.)
For the USC Trojans, although they may be facing a blackout in Utah this weekend, their streets are paved with gold for a potential Rose Bowl bid. They've already chowed down on Oregon State and Colorado, and will get to try their hand with Washington State and Cal before finishing their season with state rival UCLA.
In a season where the head coach has been called a racist by a former player, a member of the team lied about saving a life during a drowning, a loss to Boston College on the road happened, and a national powerhouse sat at 3-2 overall, it's remarkable to consider the position the Trojans have put themselves in. It's not outside the realm of possibility that this offensive juggernaut that has scored at least 31 points in each game outside of Stanford, could run the table over their final five games and finish the season at 10-2. Led by Cody Kessler's golden arm and Nelson Agholor's tremendous hands and dazzling footwork, there is little doubt that the Trojans may wind up Rose Bowl bound after all.
These are two teams coming from diametrically opposite backgrounds. One on account, there are the Trojans; beasts of the West, five-star recruits galore, former players are littered all over NFL rosters and if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere-unless you're Matt Leinart. Then there are the Utah Utes. Their biggest rival is a school that doesn't even claim a conference, and they're biggest battle is to convince five-star recruits that not everyone in the state of Utah is a damn Mormon. One team is expected to churn out NFL Draft prospects, while the other shocked the college football world over five years ago in the 2009 Sugar Bowl by toppling the mighty Alabama Crimson Tide.
The Utes have announced that quarterback Travis Wilson will be under center on Saturday. While he boasts an impressive 7 TD-0 INT ratio, he pails in comparison to what may be the most talented of the recent bunch of USC quarterbacks (Matt Leinart, John David Booty, Mark Sanchez).
If Cody Kessler's 69.5 percent completion percentage wasn't enough to salivate the palate, take a gander at his 18 TD-1 INT ratio. While a beautifully crafted wide receiving unit surrounds him, Kessler is not only taking care of the football, but also thriving by chucking it around the gridiron.
Where there may be a hint of concern is in his road production. At home this year, Kessler has thrown for an average of 319.3 yards. But on the road, that number dips significantly down to 212.3 yards. For a team that suffered road losses to both Boston College and Arizona State already this season, Kessler will need to carry his club in Salt Lake City and bring them out on the other side should they continue to have legitimate Rose Bowl hopes.
While it's a nice thought to believe the Utes could slow down Kessler, the more realistic outcome is outshooting the gunslinger. But rather than with Travis Wilson's arm, Utah will look to running back Devontae Booker to carry the load.
Having already hammered out 742 yards for a ridiculously productive 6.2 yards/carry, Booker is the workhorse Whittingham has been searching for. Having found the endzone seven times already this season, he'll need to become acclimated with the painted area should the Utes hope to continue slipping the Cinderella slipper on.
Kickoff is scheduled for 7 p.m. PST, with the game being nationally broadcasted on Fox Sports 1.
Most of the East Coast may be asleep by the conclusion, but come nightfall in the West, the complexion of the Pac-12 South will have changed completely.