If you thought this weekend’s game between California and Utah could be a legitimate Pac-12 Championship Game Preview, you should be going to buy a lottery ticket. Nobody would have guessed that at the beginning of the season, but this week Cal and Utah will represent the Pac-12’s final unbeaten teams in one of the games of the week.
Series History: Cal leads all-time series, 5-4
Cal and Utah have faced each other twice as Pac-12 members since 2011, but the series was first played way back in 1920 at Cal. The Golden Bears won the first three meetings, played between 1920 and 1963, but Utah has won three of the last four meetings dating back to 2003.
The two teams have not met since 2012 in Utah’s second season in the Pac-12. Utah’s Reggie Dunn returned two kickoffs for touchdowns from 100-yards to tie an NCAA record. Utah quarterback Travis Wilson was a freshman at the time, and he passed for 156 yards and rushed for a touchdown for his first win as a starter.
Utah Head Coach: Kyle Whittingham (11th season, 89-43)
Kyle Whittingham took over as the head coach of the Utes on a one-game interim basis in 2004 and has never looked back. The successor to Urban Meyer, who left Utah to coach at Florida, has guided the program from BCS buster into a power conference and now has Utah looking like a decent national contender. In his 11th season as head coach, Whittingham has put together a winning season in all but two years, 2012 and 2013. With Whittingham at the helm, Utah is 8-1 in postseason bowl games.
The first three years Utah was in the Pac-12 saw a regression in conference win total, but Whittingham allowed the program some time to adapt to competing in the Pac-12 and recruiting like a Pac-12 program. The patience seems to have paid off as Utah won nine games last season and could be putting together a double-digit win season.
Utah at a Glance
Few teams have rocketed up the polls the way Utah has this season. The Utes opened the year with a solid Thursday night victory at home over Michigan, spoiling the debut of Jim Harbaugh with the Wolverines. That win has continued to gain value as Michigan is playing some of the best all-around football in the Big Ten right now. The game that threw Utah in the national title and playoff discussion came two weeks ago in Eugene, Oregon. The Utes demolished perennial Pac-12 power Oregon, 62-20. It was quite the eye-opener for college football analysts and fans, but it was also the perfect balance of Utah’s defense being among the best in the conference and Travis Wilson having the game of his life.
Wilson has been known to have hot and cold streaks throughout his career, when healthy. Against Oregon, Wilson completed 18 of his 30 pass attempts for 227 yards and four touchdowns. He also led the Utes in rushing with 100 yards and another score for a five-touchdown night. The Utes are actually ranked near the bottom (11th) of the Pac-12 in passing offense.
One key area that has been working well for Utah has been the special teams. Utah has already returned two punts for a touchdown this season, equaling the season total for the rest of the conference so far. Britain Covey and Boobie Hobbs have each returned one punt for a touchdown.
Cal is going to be in for quite a test Saturday night in Salt Lake City. Utah’s defense will be the best Cal has faced so far this season, but Cal has been playing fairly confidently lately and should be up for the challenge. Travis Wilson can be thrown off his game and make some mistakes if Cal’s defense can get to him, and that could be the key. Cal appears to have the advantage at quarterback, but Utah may have the edge on defense. How each team handles the pressure that comes with a national spotlight game should be telling as well. Winning in Salt Lake City is rarely easy, so Cal will have to whether the storm sure to come from Utah in the first half.
Kevin McGuire is a Philadelphia area sports writer covering the Philadelphia Eagles and college football. McGuire is a member of the FWAA and National Football Foundation. Follow McGuire on Twitter @KevinOnCFB. His work can be found on Examiner.com.