Not many bowl games feature two teams that have met 79 previous times but that is the case when former conference rivals Utah and Colorado State meet on Saturday in the Las Vegas Bowl. The Utes own the series over Rams (55-22-2) and is 6-1 against the Colorado State under Kyle Whittingham — the only loss came in Whittingham’s first season in Salt Lake City.
After missing the postseason four straight years, Jim McElwain led the Rams to their second straight bowl game and a 10-win season. However, Dave Baldwin will be running the ship after McElwain departed Fort Collins for Gainesville, Fla.
Opposite Baldwin, Whittingham has led a resurgent Utah program back to the postseason after two years without a bowl bid.
Utah is making its fourth appearance in the Las Vegas Bowl while Colorado State is making its postseason debut in Sin City.
Utah vs. Colorado State
Kickoff: 3:30 p.m. ET (Dec. 20)
TV Channel: ABC
Spread: Utah -3.5
Utah’s Key to Victory: Efficient and balanced offense
Utah has arguably the best special teams in the nation and has more than held its own along the defensive front. So it falls to the offense to find balance and not turn the ball over. Travis Wilson has had his share of impressive moments this fall but has also made plenty of mistakes. He needs to rely on All-Pac-12 running back Devontae Booker (1,350 yds, 9 TDs) to make plays and not be afraid to throw the ball away. If Wilson protects the football and plays it conservatively, the Utes are good enough to win with defense and special teams.
Colorado State's Key to Victory: Protect the QB
Few teams in the nation have as talented an offensive trio as Colorado State’s Garrett Grayson, Rashard Higgins and Dee Hart. Grayson has been sterling under center (32 TDs, 6 INTs) while Higgins is leading the nation with 17 touchdown catches. Hart brings balance to the offense (1,254 yds, 16 TDs). Needless to say, the trio has been tough to stop this year, but the Utes led the nation in sacks (52) and Baldwin can bet on plenty of pressure from Utah. Keeping Grayson upright and protected on passing downs (while giving Hart some space to work with on the ground) will give CSU its only chance at the upset. If the Rams can’t block Nate Orchard and a healthy Hunter Dimick, it could be a long day for Grayson and company.
Colorado State has an advantage with its talented trio on offense but they haven’t faced too many defensive fronts like what the Utes bring to the table. And Wilson hasn’t been consistent enough for the Utes to lean on him on offense. Instead, Utah will focus heavily on getting Booker the football on offense — he has carried the ball at least 23 times in a game seven times this year — and allowing the nation’s best special teams to win the field position battle. With the nation’s top punter (Tom Hackett), one of the best kickers (Andy Phillips) and an elite return man (Kaelin Clay), Whittingham’s bunch should outlast the Rams for his seventh bowl win in eight tries at Utah.