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An old coaching precept "It's not how you start, it's how you finish" has been burned into the Utes in the harshest possible way: experience.
Utah football is well-perched to reach a few firsts with three games remaining this season: By winning out against Arizona State, Oregon and Colorado, the No. 13 Utes would win the South Division, reach the Pac-12 title game and possibly play for a shot at the program's first-ever Rose Bowl.
History may have no influence on Utah's final stretch this year, but the last few years have been a struggle to get out of November with its goals. Coming off their bye week, the Utes are looking to break from recent late-season struggles and finally finish a season the same way they started.
"Our position is good," coach Kyle Whittingham said. "It's not perfect or ideal but it is pretty darn good. We feel like we still have a chance to finish with a positive season and it's been positive so far."
A weekend away from Pac-12 play didn't change the stakes for Utah: Division leader Colorado beat UCLA in a defensive scrap, and USC (a half-game ahead of Utah but giving up the tiebreaker edge) crushed visiting Oregon. The Buffs and the Trojans aren't giving the Utes any margin for error so far winning out is the only sure path to winning the South.
Utah has been in this position before: In 2014's initial CFP poll, the Utes were No. 17. Last season, the Utes were No. 12 and rose as high as No. 10. But November results simply haven't been as crisp as Utah's starts in those years.
In the past two seasons, Utah has begun conference play a combined 7-2, losing only one Pac-12 game each year. But Utah's November record in that same time period is 4-5, with each November bringing at least two conference losses. In both seasons, the Utes have lost a home game (2014 vs Arizona, 2015 vs. UCLA) that has taken them out of contention for the South in the final two weeks.
Whittingham has stressed to the team again that it controls its own destiny. That begins this week in Tempe, where Utah hasn't won since 1976. Until they get that win, the Utes are trying not to look any further ahead.
"It's in the back of our heads, but at the end of the day we want to focus on one week at a time," quarterback Troy Williams said. "You can't get too caught up in the future down the road. You have to focus on Arizona State right now to even think about later outcomes."
There is reason to worry: The Sun Devils, who fell to fourth place in the South on a three-game losing streak, appear to be getting healthier. The Arizona Republic reported Sunday that quarterback Manny Wilkins was practicing with the first-team offense, and the dual-threat passer has been injured for much of the last four weeks during ASU's struggles. The Sun Devils are also looking for players to come back at receiver, offensive line and defensive back among other positions coach Todd Graham said in the team's most recent game, it was missing 10 starters.
But Utah is getting healthy as well: Whittingham said safety Marcus Williams and tight end Harrison Handley are hopefuls to be back in action Thursday. Linebacker Sunia Tauteoli and receiver Tim Patrick played significant reps against Washington. Cory Butler-Byrd is expecting to return after missing the start against the Huskies.
It's been good timing for Utah to marshal its resources and heal its wounds: If history is any guide, the Utes will need the extra week of preparation to finally change their November fortunes.
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No. 13 Utah at Arizona State
P Thursday, 7:30 p.m.
TV • FS1