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Utah Football: Utes Prove the Rose Bowl Still Matters

Kyle Whittingham, Utah Utes Football at the 2021 Pac-12 Championship Game with Commissioner George Kliavkoff

Kyle Whittingham and the Utes are reveling in their first-ever Pac-12 title and trip to the Rose Bowl

LAS VEGAS — The advent and likely expansion of the College Football Playoff suggests some of the game's traditions no longer matter like they once did; even the Granddaddy of 'Em All. Not so for Utah in its first trip to college football's first bowl.

Laying out all that makes the Rose Bowl Game special — the history, the majesty of a San Gabriel Mountains sunset, that even paranoia following Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor couldn't keep it from being played — can leave one feeling a bit like Mike Damone pitching Cheap Trick tickets on a prospective concert-goer.

Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham may be a proud classic rock fan, but neither his Utes nor the Rose Bowl have to plead I want you to want me. Utah and the 108th installment of college football's oldest bowl game are the perfect match, and perfect reminder of why New Year's Day in Pasadena remains a premier destination.

For Utah, spending Jan. 1 in southern California signals an important milestone in the program's development.

"It’s something we’ve been working towards for a long time. We’ve been in the league, 10 years now, 11 years?" Whittingham said. "We got into the league and knew we had some things we’d need to improve."

Utah enjoyed a transformative 2000s as part of the Mountain West. The decade included the 2004 Utes becoming the first team from a non-automatic qualifying conference to land a Bowl Championship Series bid and the 2008 team setting the wheels in motion for a playoff with its perfect record and Sugar Bowl rout of Alabama.

As strong as Utah was, however, the reality of playing a full-time, power-conference schedule became evident early.

The Utes missed the postseason in two of its first three Pac-12 seasons and had its first two flirtations with a divisional crown snuffed out during rocky Novembers.

In 2015, after peaking at No. 3 in the Associated Press Top 25, Utah went into its longtime house of horrors, Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, and dropped a 42-24 decision to USC that wasn't as close as the final score indicates.

It was a game that former Utes linebacker Gionni Paul called "a reality check."

As home to the conference's historical bellwether program, the Coliseum has been the site of several reality checks for Utah. Blowing out the Trojans during a down year for USC may not carry the same cachet, but finally winning in the city of Los Angeles after more than a century marked an important moment in Utes history.

Such has been the M.O. of this squad.

"It's a history-making football team," Whittingham said of the 2021 Utes. "We've never won the Pac-12; I'm proud of them for that."

Utah came close in the two previous full-length seasons, reaching the Pac-12 Championship Game in both 2018 and 2019.

Losses to established programs Washington and Oregon — the last national champion and producer of a Heisman Trophy winner not named USC, respectively — demonstrated the work still to be done.

That work was primarily on the recruiting trail. Utah's staff responded in the two signing periods since losing a playoff-denying Pac-12 Championship Game to Oregon in 2019 with classes ranked No. 30 and 33 nationally — the program's best ever.

Van Fillinger, a four-star signee in 2020, made 1.5 tackles for loss and seven total tackles in the Pac-12 Championship. High three-star 2021 recruit Cole Bishop led the Utes with eight tackles, recorded a sack and broke up a pass.

Combining young talent with veteran savvy from the likes of upperclassmen like Pac-12 Championship Most Valuable Player, and likely first-round NFL draft pick, Devin Lloyd to shape Utah's history-making identity.

"It feels amazing, the best feeling in the world, especially being my first championship," Lloyd said.

Whittingham referred to the steady climb over the past decade since Utah's inaugural Pac-12 season in 2011, and this first Rose Bowl berth, as part of a process. It's been gradual, but each step has taken Utah in the right direction with noteworthy milestones along the way.

Consider 2013, when Utah finished below .500 and out of the bowl picture for a second straight season. The Utes have made the postseason every season since, save the COVID-19 campaign. But even in the struggle of 2013, Utah saw tangible progress with its defeat of Stanford.

"The whole crowd rushed the field, and they're trying to put me on their shoulders and crowd surf," former Utes wide receiver Dres Anderson told me in 2014. "It was an electric feel, and I'd love to have that type of feeling after every game."

As the magnitude of the wins increases, Utah gets to bask in more of that feeling. The Rose Bowl marks an opportunity to experience it at the pinnacle.

The Pac-12's playoff drought reaches five seasons, the conference's last hopes of sending a participant to this year's tournament dashed on Nov. 20 when this same Utah team blasted the same Oregon bunch.

The win in Salt Lake City provided the Ducks a receipt for the 2019 season, and the victory in the title game doubled it.

"It's nice to be on the other side of it," said Mika Tafua. "Have the confetti fall on us.

"In our players' meeting the night before the game," he added, "I got up and told everyone, 'That feeling [of losing the championship game] is not something you want to feel, but I believe we can do it and everyone just needs to believe.'"

Utah found itself out of the Playoff chase before the fall equinox, but the lack of national championship implications did nothing to deter the Utes' embrace of pursuing the conference title.

The energy with which the Utes chased the Pac-12 crown helped generate the very sort of "electric feel" Anderson described of a landmark win eight years ago.

"The crowd at Rice-Eccles [Stadium] for that Oregon game 13 days ago was the best environment I’ve ever been in," Whittingham said.

That environment traveled to Las Vegas.

Allegiant Stadium transformed into Rice-Eccles Southwest, the seats a sea of red with a few atolls of green splashed here and there. Every big Utes play — of which there were many — elicited ear-shattering cheers from the Utah faithful.

"We have the best fans in the nation," Lloyd said. "It was no surprise to me whenever they all showed up, and they were loud the whole game."

No collective shout was as passionate as the roar let out for a video tribute to teammates Ty Jordan and Aaron Lowe. Utah dedicated this season to the memory of the two, killed in the last calendar year.

Whittingham said Jordan and Lowe "were with us tonight" in the Utes' conference-title victory. Utah's commitment to keeping their memories front-and-center throughout this run puts Jordan and Lowe in the Rose Bowl's legacy.

"It etches their name in history," said quarterback Cam Rising. "That's kind of what we talked about doing all year."

"They were there, guiding us throughout the whole season," Lloyd said. "They were able to help us create things I don't think we ever would have done without them."

 On the first day of 2022, Utah continues its pledge to be "22 percent better every day" in an edition of the Rose Bowl Game that promises to be as special and as memorable as any before it.

— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45 and subscribe to his newsletter, The Press Break.