SANTA CLARA, Calif. — While the other Power Five conferences will hold championship games that will help determine the field for the College Football Playoff, the prize in the Pac-12 title game will be a more traditional one.
When No. 17 Utah takes on No. 10 Washington on Friday night, the teams will be battling for a spot in the Rose Bowl — the reward that has been given almost annually to the top Pac-12 team for about a century.
“The Pac-12 Championship Game is always what we’ve been working for,” Utes linebacker Chase Hansen said. “That’s kind of been the prize for us. Now that we’re here, it’s about as big as it can get for us.”
Getting to this game is quite an accomplishment for the Utes (9-3, 6-3, No. 17 CFP), who made the move from the Mountain West conference to the more prestigious Pac-12 in 2011.
Utah has made a bowl game the past four years but is making its first appearance in the Pac-12 title game and is seeking its first trip ever to the Rose Bowl.
“It has been an exciting journey,” coach Kyle Whittingham said. “As I’ve said many times in the past, when we joined the Pac-12, it was like I got a new job. Everything was different. The bar was raised in virtually every area and it was a big challenge.”
The Huskies (9-3, 7-2, No. 11 CFP) are playing in the conference title game for the second time ever, having beaten Colorado two years ago to earn a spot in the four-team playoff.
Washington hasn’t been to the Rose Bowl since the end of the 2000 season.
“I think everybody wants to do that, for sure,” coach Chris Petersen said. “If you’re not going to the playoffs, everybody is very much dialed into the Rose Bowl. Especially with the history of this conference and the Rose Bowl, it would be an awesome, awesome game to go to.”
Here are some other things to watch:
RARE REMATCH: These teams met previously on Sept. 15, with the Huskies winning 21-7 at Utah behind 143 yards rushing and a touchdown from Myles Gaskin. This marks the first time since 2010 that Washington played the same team twice in a year, having beaten Nebraska in the Holiday Bowl that year after losing in the regular season. Utah last had a rematch during the season in 1945 against Denver.
“It’s unique in itself but, at the same time, you prepare for them like they’re a completely new team because they’re always going to have something different,” Hansen said. “They’ve progressed. The season’s long. They’re doing different things.”
UNDER PRESSURE: Utah’s defense is built on getting negative plays that force the opponent into difficult third-and-long situations. Utah leads the Pac-12 with 8.2 tackles for loss per game, which plays a big role in holding opposing offenses to a league-best 33.2 percent conversion rate on third down, when they are able to bring even more pressure on the quarterback.
“They’re dedicated to it, they’re exotic about it and it’s kind of their game-plan thing,” Huskies quarterback Jake Browning said. “They do what they do other than third-down pressures. That’s where they change it up week to week. “
FANTASTIC FILL-INS: The Utes were dealt a big blow during a four-day span in early November when quarterback Tyler Huntley and running back Zack Moss went down with injuries. That duo accounted for 84 percent of Utah’s offense through nine games, but backups Jason Shelley and Armand Shyne have proved to be more than capable fill-ins. Shelley has committed no turnovers in three starts at quarterback, winning all three games. Shyne has averaged 92 yards rushing per game as the featured back with three TDs in that span.
SPECIAL SPECIALISTS: The Utes have perhaps the nation’s top kicking duo in 2016 Ray Guy Award winner as top punter Mitch Wishnowsky and 2017 Lou Groza winner as top kicker Matt Gay. Wishnowsky ranks ninth in the nation this season, averaging 45.4 yards per punt, with 21 inside the 20-yard line and nine at or inside the 10. Wishnowsky has just nine touchbacks on 166 career punts. Gay leads the nation with 21 straight made field goals and is tied for best in the country with nine made kicks from at least 40 yards.