Jason Shelley is 3-0 as the Utes' starting quarterback since taking over for an injured Tyler Huntley
The Utes are playing the Washington Huskies for the Pac-12 championship at Levi's Stadium on Friday. It represents a huge step for a football program that once made a name for itself as the original BCS Buster. Utah (9-3, 6-3 Pac-12) bounced back from a 0-2 start in league play to win six of seven games and clinch the school's first-ever Pac-12 South crown. Now the Utes sit on the doorstep of a conference title and a Rose Bowl berth.
“It has been an exciting journey, Utah head 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... I think bigger than most people realize. I think we did it the right way.”
Washington is favored to beat Utah for a second time this season after dominating the Utes for a 21-7 win in September. The Huskies have dominated the series between the two schools, holding a 11-1 lead in 12 games with Utah. Still, there's no reason for Utah to not feel confident about its chances. The Utes have one of the top all-around defenses in the league and an offense that's shown enough improvement to hang with Washington this time around.
5 Reasons Why Utah Will Win the Pac-12 Championship Game
1. QB Jason Shelley
One thing that stands out immediately about Shelley is his poise under pressure. The redshirt freshman takes care of the football. He has not committed a turnover in three starts since taking over for Tyler Huntley. There also hasn't been a drop-off in production with Huntley sidelined. Shelley's statistics don't leap off of the page. He has thrown for 624 yards and three touchdowns while completing 58.5 percent of his passes over the last three games. But Shelley also has a knack for stretching the field and making big plays. His coolness under pressure has earned him respect from his teammates and given the offense extra confidence. Washington's defense, as good as it is, will have a tough time rattling Shelley.
2. Utah's offense is finishing drives now
A key reason why Utah lost to Washington 21-7 in September is that the Utes could not finish drives. All three fourth-quarter drives against the Huskies started inside the Washington 35. Utah turned the ball over on downs each time. The Utes went just 1-of-3 in the red zone in that game. Getting points on the board isn't a concern these days. Utah leads the Pac-12 in red zone offense. The Utes have scored 41 times in 45 trips inside the 20-yard line, a conversion rate of 91.1 percent. Utah has scored on 100 percent of drives inside the red zone in nine games this season.
3. Utah's defense is strong enough to shut down Washington
The Utes have built much of their football identity on the back of a physical, aggressive defense that imposes its will on a game. This year may be the best example of that in Pac-12 play to date. Utah has shut down opponents left and right at critical junctures. The Utes did it against Washington the first time around, even though their offense couldn't capitalize. They forced the Huskies to punt four times and snagged an interception on five of seven second-half drives. Washington totaled just 112 yards after halftime and averaged 3.4 yards per play. An improved offense can take advantage if the defense performs at a similar level on Friday.
4. Deep threats have emerged at receiver for Utah
One of Utah's shortcomings on offense in September was the lack of reliable options at receiver who could stretch the field. That hasn't been a problem for the Utes late in the season with the emergence of freshmen Jaylen Dixon and Solomon Enis. Neither player caught a pass against Washington, but they've both claimed increasingly bigger roles in the offense as the season has progressed. Dixon is second on the team in receiving yards behind Britain Covey with 407 yards on only 16 catches. Enis is averaging 14.5 yards per catch and has totaled 145 receiving yards. Their ability to stretch the field can open up things underneath for Covey and tight ends like Cole Fotheringham and Brant Kuithe.
5. Bowl game mentality
When it comes to postseason games, no one is better at getting their team prepared than Kyle Whittingham. Utah does not lose bowl games under Whittingham. The Utes are 11-1 in the postseason since he became the head coach. Whittingham's 11 bowl wins are the second most among active coaches and his bowl win percentage (.917) is the best in NCAA history. Utah will approach the Pac-12 Championship Game with a bowl game mentality. The Utes will be zeroed in and focused on both sides of the ball. Washington has been on this stage before, but Utah is mentally strong enough to not get intimidated by the Huskies.
— Written by John Coon, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Coon has more than a decade of experience covering sports for different publications and outlets, including The Associated Press, Salt Lake Tribune, ESPN, Deseret News, MaxPreps, Yahoo! Sports and many others. Follow him on Twitter @johncoonsports.