Close your eyes and think back to December 2013. Jameis Winston had just won the Heisman Trophy. Anchorman 2 was recycling jokes, but we laughed anyway. And somewhere in Berkeley and Salt Lake City, a couple of college football teams were home for the holidays with a combined record of 6-18.
Open your eyes. It’s Week 6 of the 2015 season and California is set to travel to Utah in a game of such national importance that College GameDay will be on site to see the two undefeated teams square off.
Welcome to modern college football, where fortunes swing with unpredictable fury. And yet, when we think back to a couple of years ago, the early signs were there.
After Cal finished 2013 at 1-11 with true freshman Jared Goff at the helm, we said “Man, give those guys a couple of years. They are going to be good.” And when Utah wrapped up its second-consecutive bowl-less, 5-7 season, we said, “Did you see how they knocked off Stanford? Man, give those guys a couple of years. They are going to be good.”
Guess what? It’s been a couple of years. And the lessons in patience preached by Cal’s Sonny Dykes and Utah’s Kyle Whittingham have paid off with perfect starts and national rankings. Cal was an explosive offensive football team that needed some defense. Utah was a stingy defensive team that needed some offense. Through the first five weeks, both have found what they were looking for in the last two seasons.
The Bears, once among the worst defenses in the country, lead the nation with 18 turnovers gained and a plus-8 margin. And the offense has done what good offenses do. They’ve turned those 18 turnovers into 65 points. They also have 18 sacks, tops in the Pac-12.
Utah, while still not an offensive juggernaut, is averaging 38.8 points per game. They have a running back averaging better than 110 yards a contest and a quarterback who ranks first in the country in adjusted QBR. And let’s not forget -- as is standard for the Utes -- outstanding special teams.
A case could easily be made that this is a preview of the Pac-12 championship game. Another could be made that both of these teams will finish third in their divisions and attend mid-level bowl games. Neither scenario is preposterous. Neither is without merit.
You need only look at the nuclear-grade fallout of the college football landscape through the first five weeks of play. Five different teams received first-place votes in the latest AP poll -- including seven voters who think Utah is the best in the country. It smacks of indecisiveness, unpredictability and chaos. Trying to pick a top 25 each week makes the lottery seem manageable.
Last week, the top two teams in the country won single-possession games against unranked teams to hold their spots. No. 3 Ole Miss lost by four touchdowns. Nos. 6, 7 and 8 all fell. It’s not just the Pac-12 that’s feeling the crunch.
So is it really that unlikely that Cal and Utah are in this position? Based on what we thought Cal would be, a 5-0 start didn’t seem egregious. The same could be said for Utah -- with their blowout win at Oregon as the only perceived “shock” of the Pac-12 season to date.
Neither of these teams will be home this December. In fact, No. 23 Cal (5-0) could wrap up bowl eligibility with a win this week. No. 5 Utah (4-0) still needs a couple of wins, but given the way they’ve started the season, that seems more likely than not.
When we looked at marquee games in the Pac-12 in 2015, this game wasn’t on the radar. Shame on us? Perhaps. There are other games to come with more brand-name programs ... such as Oregon-USC, UCLA-USC, Oregon-Stanford, etc. But the fact that the league’s College Football Playoff hopes could hinge on Saturday’s outcome between the Bears and Utes is remarkable from where we were just 21 months ago. And it should serve as a reminder that sometimes, patience pays off.