UTAH UTES (8-4) vs. COLORADO STATE RAMS (10-2)
DEC. 20, 3:30 P.M. ET, SAM BOYD STADIUM, LAS VEGAS (ABC)
Season highlights: Are the Utes the true kings of Los Angeles? Thrilling last-minute wins at UCLA and home to USC suggest they are. Utah looked very much the part of a Pac-12 team, competing for the South Division title (arguably the toughest division in college football) up until the final weeks. Besides topping the L.A. schools, Utah also beat brand-name programs like Stanford and Michigan.
Season lowlights: Many will look to the Kaelin Clay fumble against Oregon. And that would be fair. No one likes being a national punch line. The home loss to Washington State early in the year was shocking, as was kicker “Automatic” Andy Phillips missing an overtime field goal in the loss to ASU. But the Utes will tell you the lowlight was a 42-10 thumping at the hands of Arizona. It knocked them out of South contention and was their worst loss of the year.
Player to watch: Hybrid defensive end Nate Orchard has been one of the most dominating defensive players in the country in 2014. He leads the nation with an average of 1.46 sacks per game and is second nationally with a total of 17.5 on the year. Running backs have felt his wrath, too, as he’s tallied 20 tackles for loss, which ranks third in the Pac-12. But he’s not just a backfield specialist. He averages 6.8 tackles per game and has 81 stops (51 solo) on the season.
Motivation: The Utes missed the postseason the previous two years, but are now back for the 11th time in 14 seasons. Head coach Kyle Whittingham is 7-1 in bowl games, which includes a win as co-head coach in the 2005 Fiesta Bowl. So playing in a bowl should be motivation enough. For nine straight weeks the Utes have led the nation in sacks, averaging 4.33 per game. That’s a streak #SackLakeCity would like to extend in the postseason.
-- Kevin Gemmell
vs.COLORADO STATE BREAKDOWN
Season highlights: This was a breakthrough year for the Rams, and they just lost their head coach, Jim McElwain, to Florida because of it. Colorado State had finished 3-9 in three consecutive seasons prior to McElwain’s arrival, but their win total reached 10 in 2014. The Rams’ offense ranked 13th nationally while averaging 498 yards per game, and that helped fuel a nine-game win streak. A comeback victory at Boston College helped unleash that tear. And a win against in-state rival Colorado to kick off the season is always a big deal in Fort Collins.
Season lowlights: They didn’t know it at the time, but after losing 37-24 to Boise State in Week 2, the Rams were eliminated from title contention in the Mountain Division because the Broncos would only lose one more time the rest of the way. That was a rough setback on the blue turf for Colorado State, as Boise State grabbed a 37-10 lead after three quarters. A 27-24 loss to Air Force in the finale was painful, too. The Rams failed on a fourth-and-short before the Falcons kicked a game-winning field goal as time expired.
Players to watch: Keep an eye on Colorado State’s offensive Big Three. Quarterback Garrett Grayson has been a consistent 300-yard-per-game performer, tossing 32 touchdowns against only six interceptions. That’s helped running back Dee Hart put up some gaudy numbers (6.7 yards per carry, 16 TDs), and it’s gone well with receiver Rashard Higgins’ monster year (89 catches, 1,640 yards, 17 TDs). Higgins leads the nation in receiving yards.
Motivation: It’s always interesting to see how a team responds in bowl season after losing its head coach, and that’ll be the Colorado State question moving forward under interim man Dave Baldwin. This has been an excellent Rams run, and there’s great offensive leadership on this team, so the guess here is that they’ll be pumped up to play.
-- David Lombardi