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Utah Football: No More Las Vegas Bowls

Halfway through the season the Utes are 5-1. What do they have to accomplish in the second half to have a successful season?

NCAA Football: Arizona at Utah Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

Time is unflinching and unstoppable. Not unstoppable like the movie Unstoppable, they stopped the train in that one, so the whole premise of the movie was misleading. Not unstoppable like my use of obscure movie references. Time is unstoppable like Oregon’s freefall into obscurity, or the continuous unstoppable flow of bad calls made by Pac-12 Refs. Time cares about you as much as [insert Presidential Candidate you dislike] cares about honesty. Because time is cruel and can’t be contained, half of the college football season has passed us by, never to return again.

Midseason is a useful time to reevaluate the goals each team had coming into the season. In the case of the Pac-12, there’s lots of readjusting to do. Colorado came into the year hoping for a bowl game. Three games into Pac-12 play and suddenly the Buffs are considered legitimate South Division contenders. Colorado started from the bottom, stayed at the bottom for a while, stayed there a little longer, and now they’re here. “Here” isn’t the top, but at least it’s finally within view. On the opposite side of the spectrum, Oregon was getting love as a sleeper Pac-12 Champion pick before games started being played. Whoops. After six games, Oregon probably isn’t even going to make it to a bowl game.

Half a season gives you a pretty good idea of what a team is, and that allows you to set some realistic goals for the end of the season. Unlike preseason predictions, this time we have some actual information to go off of, which makes the prediction process slightly easier.

This brings us to Utah. The Utes are one of the more perplexing teams to reevaluate at this point in the season. Coming into the year, the Utes were fresh off a ten win season in which they were Co-South Division Champions, (an absolutely meaningless designation) and were ranked No. 3 in the country at one point.

All of those are reasons for optimism, right? Nope, not according to Las Vegas. The over/under win total Vegas set for the Utes was 7.5 games. Essentially, Vegas expected Utah to regress by at least two games. Anything more than would have been because the Utes overachieved. Preseason predictions weren’t much kinder to the Utes. Bill Connelly’s S&P+ ratings projected Utah for 6.6 wins on the season. On Pac-12 Media Day, the members of the media voted Utah would finish third in the Pac-12 South, behind the two LA schools.

Here we are though. The Utes currently hold a 5-1 record, are ranked 21st in the country, and after three conference games, share the lead in the Pac-12 South with Arizona State. I’m not here to bash on preseason polls or predictions. Everyone makes terrible guesses before the season, or even during the season. If you want proof of that, go look at the Pacific Takes staff picks every week. The point is, after expectations from the outside world were so low for the Utes, what finish to the season would allow the team and fans to consider this a successful season for Utah?

If we were to base our definition of a successful season based solely on preseason expectations, Utah would simply have to win three of its last seven (counting a bowl appearance) games to have a solid season. A finish like that would end the season with seven wins for the Utes and an appearance in either the Cactus or Las Vegas Bowl. I don’t think those are the bowl games teams aim for at the start of the season, to put it nicely.

Expectations are fluid though. For example, when I started writing for Pacific Takes, expectations were incredibly low. Now? Expectations are nonexistent. If I turn in four words that make even partial sense, it’s considered a remarkable achievement. It’s the same for Utah. While mediocrity was expected for the Utes coming into the season, a strong start could create hope for a finish better than average.

Looking at similar starts in past seasons can give you a precedent of what to expect from Utah for the rest of the season. In 2014, Utah started off in nearly identical fashion to this season. The Utes opened the season 5-1 after winning all three nonconference games and started 2-1 in Pac-12 play. In those first three conference games, the Utes won a huge game against a Los Angeles school (UCLA), picked up an easy win (Oregon State), and dropped a close game they should have won (Washington State). Change those team names to USC, Arizona, and Cal respectively, and suddenly you have the same model for this season.

Unfortunately, the second half of the 2014 season was nowhere near as strong as the first half. The Utes finished 3-3, although all three of the team’s losses came against ranked opponents. At season’s end, Utah was sitting at 5th in the Pac-12 South and played in the (I feel like I’ve written this too many times) Las Vegas Bowl.

The expectations surrounding the 2014 team were slightly different than those around the team this year. In 2014, the Utes were coming off of two straight losing seasons, so finishing with nine wins, a winning conference records, and a No. 21 ranking were considered a successful season.

The assumption of what was a good season for Utah began changing in 2015. A 6-0 start and a Top 3 ranking tend to change how people perceive a team. By this point, we know full well how the second half of that season played out. Another 3-3 finish to conference play, no berth in the conference championship because of a tiebreaker with USC, and an invite to play in the (Please don’t make me write it, not again, no, please no!) Las Vegas Bowl.

2014 was a solid showing from the Utes, 2015 was nothing more than a disappointing end to a promising season.

Right now, precedent is pointing towards Utah playing in the cursed Las Vegas Bowl come December. I don’t speak for the whole Utah community, but I can’t imagine any fan or player would be thrilled with that happening for the third consecutive time. If someone is doing cartwheels over the prospect of the Las Vegas Bowl, I imagine they also delight in Green Apple Skittles and getting a snapchat and only to see it’s from Snapchat and not a real person. Nothing says disappointment like any of those three things.

I’m sure there are some fans who will read this and scream, “NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP OR BUST!” Which, cool man. You do you. I don’t judge. However, I don’t believe that the only successful team is the one that wins the National Championship. Imagine how fired up the city of Cleveland will be win the Browns win five games in a season.

So where is the middle ground between the Las Vegas Bowl and a National Championship that would make a successful season for Utah?

I looked at all the teams last year that started the season 5-1 and then what bowl games they eventually played in at the end of the season. There were ten teams that opened up 5-1, but I excluded Boise State because they aren’t in a Power 5 conference, so unless they get the Group of 5 berth to a New Year’s Six Bowl, their bowl opportunities are seriously limited.

Of the nine Power 5 teams, two of those teams played in the College Football Playoff, with one team winning the National Championship. That would be Oklahoma and Alabama. In case you forgot, Alabama was the team that won the title. Three other one-loss teams would play in a New Year’s Six Bowl (Stanford, Ole Miss, and Notre Dame). Three of the remaining four teams (Michigan, Texas A&M, and Northwestern (LOL)) played in bowl games that were held between December 30 and January 2. Those are generally the bowl games that are the most prestigious of the “other” bowl games and have matchups between top teams from Power 5 conferences.

The lone outlier of these teams is the California Golden Bears. After a 5-1 start, Cal would finish the season 7-5 and play Air Force in the Armed Forces Bowl as the 8th best Pac-12 team. It’s interesting to note that if you throw 2015 Utah into the group, the Utes played in the second worst bowl game of all the teams that started with a 5-1 record, trailing only Cal.

The examples from last year show that a team that starts with a record of 5-1 or better should eventually play in a bowl game that has some prestige and creates a marquee matchup between power conference foes. For the Pac-12, this narrows the bowl options down to the Rose, Alamo, Holiday and, if we’re feeling generous, the Foster Farms Bowl.

At this midway point in the season, Jason Kirk’s Bowl Predictions have Utah slated to appear in the Rose Bowl. If we assume Washington makes the College Football Playoff, then the second highest ranked Pac-12 team would appear in the Rose Bowl. That’s Utah at the moment. In order for Utah to secure a place in a New Year’s Six Bowl, the Utes have to play in the Pac-12 Championship game. With one loss already, they won’t get in one otherwise.

A Rose Bowl berth would be an incredible accomplishment for the Utes. Playing in the game would get the program to new heights in the Pac-12, especially given the Utes bowl history with the conference. Since joining the Pac-12, the best bowl the Utes have played in was the Sun Bowl. An appearance in the Rose Bowl would be an all time great Utah season, nearly on par with the two undefeated seasons that ended with a Sugar and Fiesta Bowl win. The Rose Bowl isn’t likely, but it is definitely in play.

This basically establishes the two ends of the spectrum for what would actually be a successful Utah season. The best case scenario for the Utes would see them play in the Pac-12 Championship and possibly the Rose Bowl. At the very least, Utah needs to take a step up in the bowl game it appears in. Winning the Las Vegas Bowl is fun when a team is still trying to find its footing in a new conference. If Utah is going to make a case for being a true contender in the Pac-12 going forward, the Utes are going to have to start winning bigger postseason games.

Ultimately, successful seasons are subjective to each individual person, but the Utes have set a threshold they need to cross in order to have a season truly worth celebrating. Appearing in the Holiday Bowl would make for a great season for Utah. Making another return trip to Las Vegas though, that would only be a disappointment. It’s time for Utah to win bigger.