Utah can help reestablish the Pac-12 as a legitimate national title contender

Welcome to the biggest day in the Pac-12 in three years. That was the last time the conference made the College Football Playoff. If college sports is all about football -- and it is -- then you have to agree.

In what is projected to be a half-empty Levi's Stadium in the middle of rush hour, No. 5 Utah must beat No. 13 Oregon.

For the league's sake. The Pac-12 hasn't been to the playoff since 2016, and it has only made two appearances.

For all the Paul Finebaums of the world whose default knowledge of football stops at the Rocky Mountains. "Let's be honest," Finebaum said this week, "the country does not want to see Utah in the College Football Playoff."

For football diversity. As I wrote Thursday, Utah's inclusion could mean half the playoff bracket would be new for the first time since 2015.

A Utah win at least creates further discussion for a Pac-12 playoff spot that would spill into Saturday. An Oregon win likely knocks the Pac-12 out. Its two best teams would have two losses.

Even if they win, the Utes still need the favorites above them to win -- LSU, Ohio State and Clemson. They also need No. 7 Baylor to beat No. 6 Oklahoma in the Big 12 Championship Game.

That's the best-case scenario for the league to recapture its lost luster. Oklahoma has a better resume and more name-brand recognition. Plus, it has beaten the Bears already this season.

This is a home game only for the Pac-12 staff. The Third Street San Francisco offices of the league are 43 miles north of Levi's Stadium. In terms of football success, it has been forever. It has been 15 years since the league has won a national championship.

With the Rose Bowl no longer able to host championship games in the CFP era, the conference's best chance for success this time is a physical program forged out the Wasatch Mountains.

It started with Utah being one biggest winners of conference realignment nine years ago. Utah was one of only two schools to move up from Group of Five (Mountain West) to Power Five. TCU was the other.

That move allowed coach Kyle Whittingham access to a better class of recruits. It made for stability that has been so constant that two members of Urban Meyer's Fiesta Bowl team from 2004 are still around. Former safety Morgan Scalley is the defensive coordinator under Whittingham, who was Meyer's defensive coordinator before taking over as coach in 2005.

"It certainly has the same feel," Whittingham said. "It certainly has a championship feel to it."

This Utah team may be even better than that '04 undefeated crew. There are 10 players projected for the NFL Draft. After a damaging loss to USC in September, the Utes have won their last eight games by an average of 29 points.

They have never stopped punching people in the mouth as perhaps the most physical team in the West.

Defensive end Bradlee Anae is a Pacific Time Zone version of Chase Young with 12.5 sacks. The 6-foot-3, 255-pound Anae has tied the school record with 29.5 career sacks. Anae leads a defense that has played only 690 snaps this season. That 57.5 play average leads the country, mostly because Utah is second nationally in time of possession.

Ohio State has emerged as a power running offense. The Buckeyes run to set up the pass. That's something Justin Fields hasn't had to do much of despite throwing for 37 touchdowns. Tailback J.K. Dobbins has a combined 67 carries the last two weeks to move into Heisman Trophy consideration.

"That's kind of what Utah has done," Dennis Erickson said.

Erickson, now 72, is the former Miami coach who finished his college coaching career in 2016 as Utah's running backs coach. Before he left, Erickson recruited the core of the Utes.

Running back Zack Moss, quarterback Tyler Huntley and receiver Demari Simpkins all came West from Hallandale High School in South Florida.

"I just wanted something different," Simpkins told the Salt Lake City Tribune. "I wanted to start fresh. Being from down South, see something different. I always knew there was more to life outside of Florida."

Erickson used his South Florida connections leading Miami to two national championships (1989, 1991) to land what they're calling The Hallandale Trio.

"If I didn't have the connections, it's pretty hard to go in there and recruit," Erickson said. "The University of Utah and the Pac-12 isn't heard of back there."

The trio were seduced by snow and snowmobiling. One was nature. The other was deemed allowable by the NCAA during recruiting visits.

Huntley has moved himself into Heisman Trophy consideration as the nation's second-most accurate passer (75.5 percent behind only Joe Burrow).

Moss leads the Pac-12 in rushing despite missing a game. In Utah's only loss to USC, Moss was knocked out early with only 20 yards. That loss looks better by the day. The Trojans rehabbed themselves, finishing 8-4 and in the CFP Rankings after winning five out of their last six.

Now it comes down to a Levi's redo. This is Utah's second consecutive Pac-12 Championship Game. Last year's effort ended with a depressing 10-3 loss to Washington. The only touchdown was scored on a pick six.

With Washington coach Chris Petersen stepping down this week and USC sticking with Clay Helton, there is a chance for Whittingham to build the Pac-12's dominant program. (If it isn't already at that point already.)

"That' s completely out of my hands," Whittingham said of the playoff ramifications. "What's in our hands is you don't spend one minute of energy worrying about what's happening after this game. "

CBS Sports Senior Writer

Dennis Dodd has covered college football for CBS Sports since it was CBS SportsLine in 1998. He is one of only seven media members to attend all 16 BCS title games and has chronicled conference realignment... Full Bio

Our Latest Stories