Now the Utes, who joined the Pac-12 Conference so they wouldn't have to be in that position, are back at it, as they hope to play in the inaugural Pac-12 title game Dec. 2.
They might get a chance to literally watch the scoreboard, too. The Utes play host to Colorado (2-10, 1-7) in the regular-season finale at Rice-Eccles Stadium on Friday afternoon, before any of the other league games are played. If they win, they can cheer for Cal to beat Arizona State later Friday, and for USC to beat UCLA on Saturday night, the two results they need in order to represent the South Division in the title game against either Oregon or Stanford.
The season turnaround has made this year as satisfying as the 2007 year, when Utah bounced back from a shutout at UNLV to win seven of its last eight games, Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said.
"We were down and out, 0-4, and to respond the way we did showed the resiliency of this team," he said.
Now with a spot in the league title game tantalizingly close but still not within their control, the Utes are determined to keep their focus on their game and not be distracted. If anything, they feel like a team that has been granted a second chance. They are determined not to goof up this opportunity.
"You want to have as much control as you can and starting from a point where it looked like we had zero control over out destiny to playing in this kind of game is cool," offensive lineman Tony Bergstrom said.
The Utes didn't know Arizona was in the process of upsetting Arizona State until they landed in Salt Lake City late Saturday night after beating Washington State.
Most of the players kept tabs on the final minutes of the game via their cell phones when the arrived home.
"At the start of the season we had some setbacks," senior Greg Bird said. "But we came together as a team and put together some wins and to be in this position is fantastic. It proves the type of team we are, to be able to bounce back from the rough start."
Whittingham acknowledged the Utes are in a situation he once thought was out of reach.
"At 1-4, we thought it would take a major miracle, then at 2-4 a minor one then at 3-4 a long shot and now it's about a 50-50 proposition," he said. "We sat back and watched it develop along the way, but we have to focus primarily on ourselves and make sure we take care of business."
That business, of course, is beating Colorado, whose first year in the Pac-12 isn't going nearly as well. The Buffs' only win was a 48-29 whipping of Arizona.
The Utes insist they won't overlook Colorado. They've worked too hard to climb out of the Pac-12 basement, and are happy to allow as reminders all of the upsets that made their current position possible.
"Three things have to happen and we have control only over one," Whittingham said. "We talked about the other scenarios in our meeting last night, but starting today and going forward, the coaches and players have nothing but Colorado ahead of us. I can tell you one thing, it's great to be in this position to even have a shot is a great opportunity for us."
Colorado Buffaloes: By the numbers
Colorado has struggled in its first year of the Pac-12:
Category Avg. League rank
Rushing offense 108.6 9
Passing offense 235.4 9
Scoring offense 20 12
Rushing defense 191.8 12
Passing defense 261.3 8
Scoring defense 38.4 12