Naturally, the Pac-12 savored one last chance to eat its own Friday night as No. 13 Oregon upset No. 5 Utah 37-15 at Levi’s Stadium. Just like that, the Pac-12 lost its only hope for getting back to the College Football Playoff for the first time since 2016.
Will the Pac-12 ever get back to the Playoff? Maybe, if commissioner Larry Scott can persuade the college football powers that be to expand the field to eight teams.
Until then, Friday’s defeat was an extremely costly loss for Utah. Instead of forcing their way into the final four, the Utes are now poised to fall right out of the New Year’s 6 bowl games altogether and into the Alamo Bowl.
It’s also a costly loss for the entire Pac-12, one that’s expected to cost the conference around $6 million because it will only send one team to the New Year’s 6 games instead of two. And it was another bitter loss for Utah coach Kyle Whittingham, who lost last year’s Pac-12 title game to Washington, 10-3.
“We’ll just keep coming back until we get it right,” Whittingham said after the game.
Perhaps the Utes will return to Santa Clara for the conference title game. After all, they finished this season 10-0 against teams with seven or fewer victories. But they also finished 0-2 when it mattered most, against teams with at least eight wins (USC and Oregon).
That of course only fuels the perception Utah is not quite good enough, even with its vaunted defense — and especially against high-powered offenses like Oregon’s. The Ducks, known primarily for quarterback Justin Herbert, instead rolled up 239 yards rushing against the nation’s third-ranked defense against the run. Utah allowed only 56.3 yards rushing per game entering the Pac-12 title game.
But that hardly looked the case on Friday, especially when Oregon tailback CJ Verdell broke a 70-yard touchdown run that blew the game open, 30-15. Verdell finished with 208 yards in 18 carries and three touchdowns.
“We all executed,” Verdell said matter-of-factly.
But no one should overlook the Ducks’ defense. Freshman defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux blocked a punt and had 2.5 sacks as Oregon contained Utah’s two stars, quarterback Tyler Huntley and tailback Zack Moss. Utah has now failed to score a touchdown in seven of eight quarters in the last two Pac-12 championship games
“The way our defense played tonight, I can’t say enough about them, they certainly were a huge factor,” said Ducks coach Mario Cristobal.
With its win, Oregon is headed to the Rose Bowl. That’s certainly not a bad consolation prize, though the idea was posed to Cristobal whether his team would still be Playoff contention as a one-loss team had it not scheduled the season-opener vs. Auburn.
Said Cristobal: “These guys deserve to find out how good they are so we’re going to continue scheduling the best.”
Give Cristobal credit: Pac-12 supporters are so desperate to become relevant nationally that it is now acceptable to question whether to ever play good teams. At least he’s taking the Ducks to the Rose Bowl, which the players tried to play down.
“For me,” Thibodeaux said, “it just sounds like another Tuesday.”