Tuesday, August 23, 2011
Best case-worst case: Utah
By ESPN.com staff
Fifth in a series looking at potential dream and nightmare scenarios for all Pac-12 teams.
Understand: These are not predictions. They are extreme scenarios and pieces of fiction. You can read last year's versions here.
We're going in reverse order of my post-spring power rankings (which might not be identical to my preseason power rankings).
Up next: Utah
When 94,000 people gasp at the same time, it creates something even more dramatic than the bedlam that inevitably follows.
Everyone in the Coliseum saw USC cornerback Nickell Robey fall down. They saw Utah receiver DeVonte Christopher turn and sprint alone up the visitor's sideline. And they saw Utes quarterback Jordan Wynn recognize the situation, and, with a notably relaxed setup and sendoff, launch what became an 85-yard touchdown pass for a 35-28 victory over the Trojans.
The Utes all-time Pac-12 record becomes 1-0.
"I think the Utes proved they belong," says ESPN GameDay's Kirk Herbstreit. "They will be a factor in the Pac-12 South."
Utes coach Kyle Whittingham seems amused with fans and reporters immediately building monuments to commemorate the moment. "It's one football game," he said. "You know, we've beaten some pretty good teams before."
The Utes don't have too much time to celebrate, considering their turnaround game is a visit to BYU for "Holy War."
A secret meeting of the MUSS executive counsel is set for Monday to plan a variety of "classless" strategies. The 12 members properly devise all sorts of horrible things to do to BYU fans, particularly Cougars players' families.
The Utes stomp the Cougars 33-10. Utah fans remains classy throughout. Smug, but classy.
The Utes move up to 10th in the nation with a win over Washington, which sets up a critical showdown with unbeaten South rival Arizona State.
Linebacker Brian Blechen grabs a late interception to preserve a 24-21 victory.
"Are the Utes going to go to the Rose Bowl their first year in the Pac-12?" ESPN's Chris Fowler asks. "What does that say about the old members of the Pac-10?"
"I don't know if it says anything other than it confirms what we suspected: The Utes are good," Herbstreit replies.
After whipping Pittsburgh 31-10, however, the wheels come off at California. The Utes yield four sacks and commit four turnovers in a 21-17 defeat.
They bounce back at home with a win over Oregon State, but the Utes secondary gets picked apart in Tucson by Arizona quarterback Nick Foles in a 38-24 defeat. That creates a three-way tie with the Utes, Wildcats and Sun Devils atop the South Division.
"Do I think the grind of the Pac-12 schedule is finally getting to us?" Whittingham says, repeating a reporter's question. "If you mean does playing a tougher schedule make it tougher to win every week, I'd say yes. That's not exactly quantum mechanics, is it?"
The Utes bounce back with a win over UCLA and a double-overtime victory at Washington State. After Arizona State beat Arizona, the Utes only need to beat Colorado to win the inaugural South Division championship.
But there is intrigue.
"Coach Embree's daughter's bike was painted red?" a befuddled Whittingham asks. "Is the Pac-12 going to be weird like this all the time?"
Despite the Buffaloes using the "Red Bike Incident" for motivation, Wynn tosses three touchdown passes in a 31-24 win.
The Utes finish the regular season 10-2 and ranked ninth. They also win the South Division and earn a berth opposite top-ranked Stanford in the first Pac-12 championship game.
Stanford prevails 38-24 as Andrew Luck passes for 305 yards and two TDs and rushes for another.
"The story here is Luck surely sewing up the Heisman and the Cardinal playing Alabama for the national title," Fowler says. "But what a first season in the Pac-12 for Utah."
The Utes whip Texas A&M in the Alamo Bowl 33-17 and finish ranked eighth.
They then sign their first top-25 recruiting class. "Coach," a reporter asks, "how's it feel to be ranked 21st in the ESPN.com recruiting rankings?"
"Oh, I don't care about recruiting rankings -- we just sign guys who want to come here and we think can help us," Whittingham says. "But it was 20th. Get it right."
USC quarterback Matt Barkley throws for 380 yards and three touchdowns against a rebuilt Utah secondary as the Trojans roll over the Utes 42-20.
"No, that's a good team; we respect them," Barkley says afterwards. "But we wanted them to get a proper welcome to the Pac-12. This ain't the Mountain West."
The Utes still seem shell-shocked a week later, and rival BYU takes advantage. Jake Heaps throws a pair of fourth-quarter TD passes as the Cougars win the "Holy War" 28-17.
"They think they're all that because they're in the Pac-12," Heaps says. "But they're still just the second-best program in Utah."
After the game, it's revealed that Utes quarterback Jordan Wynn "tweaked" his shoulder and that Jon Hays will start against Washington after the bye week.
"We hope to get Jordan back for the Arizona State game," coach Kyle Whittingham says.
The Huskies roll over the Utes 31-17.
Wynn comes back against Arizona State, but struggles early and gets up slowly after a sack from Sun Devils linebacker Vontaze Burfict.
Hays starts the third quarter, and Burfict and the Sun Devils defense dominate, holding the Utes to 28 yards in the second half.
"Lots of talk in the preseason about Utah being immediately competitive in the Pac-12," remarks ESPN's Chris Fowler. "I know Wynn's been hurt, but so far the old Pac-10 is being fairly rude to its new member."
It's announced that Wynn is done for the season.
Hays and the Utes win at Pittsburgh to improve to 2-4, but they get dominated at California, 41-10. They slip Oregon State at home, but Arizona QB Nick Foles throws for 405 yards and four touchdowns in a 38-20 Wildcats win in Tucson.
UCLA doesn't have a quarterback who can exploit the struggling Utes secondary, but Washington State does. The Cougars win 33-30 in overtime, and the Utes fall to 4-7. The season finale is at home against Colorado.
"I've got a lot more things to worry about other than a vandalized bike, of which I know nothing about," Whittingham says.
Denver Post headline: "Whittingham doesn't care about Embree's daughter's bike. Or her feelings!"
Colorado picks up its seventh win with a 30-21 victory. Buffaloes 6-foot-8 guard Ryan Miller walks out of Rice-Eccles Stadium among his celebrating teammates holding a gold and black bike above his head, one that appears to have been vandalized with cheap, red spray paint.
BYU, now an Independent, signs a broadcast deal with ESPN that will pay it an average of $25 million a year over the next 12 years.
"We are classy," BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe says. "And rich!"
The Pie closes.