The two-time defending Pac-12 champions are staggering, hobbling, aching and limping into the heart of their schedule.
They also have a slew of injuries.
Utah’s pursuit of a third consecutive conference title faces long odds after … one loss?
Yes, after one loss.
Because it’s the way the Utes lost, not to mention who they have lost, that signals the red alert.
They have scored two offensive touchdowns in the past two games — a victory over UCLA followed by a loss at Oregon State — and are averaging 16 points per game against FBS competition.
This, in a conference with four of the best offenses in the land.
The Utes (4-1, 1-0) have been without starting quarterback Cam Rising for five games while they wait for his surgically repaired knee to receive clearance from doctors. His primary replacement, Nate Johnson, was effective early in the season but not in conference play.
This, in a conference oozing elite quarterbacks.
The Utes are idle this week, leaving open the possibility that Rising will return for the Oct. 14 date with Cal. But after missing spring practice and training camp and five games, will Rising be Rising immediately upon return? More likely, he will need a handful of games to find his pre-injury timing.
This, as a grueling schedule awaits.
After facing Cal, which lacks the offense needed to produce an upset in Rice-Eccles Stadium, Utah plays No. 7 Washington, No. 8 Oregon and No. 9 USC in a four-week span.
Those teams have the offense necessary — more than enough, actually — to knock the Utes out of the race.
(Not even a defense as stout as Utah’s can survive the weekly pressure of knowing a second touchdown allowed will lead to defeat. Cracks are inevitable.)
Also, the injury list has more than one name. The Utes are without tailbacks Micah Bernard and Ja’Quinden Jackson, tight end Brant Kuithe and receiver Mycah Pittman, plus offensive linemen and defensive players.
With the possible exception of Arizona State, no team in the conference has been hit harder.
Now, we should remind Pac-12 fans, Utah fans and Brigham Young fans with Utah Voodoo dolls that the Utes have the best culture in the western third of the country thanks to the presence of a Hall of Fame coach, Kyle Whittingham, who’s approaching his third decade in charge of the program.
Utah’s toughness, accountability and resilience should not be ignored so long as there’s a whiff of a hope of a prayer that Rising will return in time for the stretch run.
Two years ago, the Utes turned the in-season death of cornerback Aaron Lowe into rocket fuel that powered their charge to the conference title.
Pac-12 bowl projections: Oregon to CFP, Washington to the Fiesta
Mountain West power ratings: It’s Fresno State and Air Force on top as UNLV (yes, UNLV) rises
Pac-12 power ratings: As Stanford and ASU race to the bottom, 0-18 looms
My AP top-25 ballot: It’s Georgia on top (again), followed by Florida State
Pac-12 rewind: Failed rallies, Friday stumbles, questionable calls and a showdown approaching
Last year, through a series of Pac-12 tiebreaker twists, they snuck into the title game, survived USC’s initial onslaught, then pounded the Trojans into submission.
So count the Utes out at your peril.
But if we’re being fully candid, it feels different this year.
The conference is better, the schedule is tougher and Rising’s status is wobblier.
If he doesn’t return, the Utes are toast.
If he does return but isn’t close to 100 percent, they’re toast.
If he does return and is close to 100 percent, they still have to deal with a gauntlet of top-10 teams, plus Colorado, plus the conference championship, in order to raise the trophy once again.
All of which underscores why three-peats are rare: So much must break right for so many weeks for so many years that the physics of football and the laws of probability become the most daunting opponents of all.
Utah typically thrives under the toughest of circumstances. This feels different.
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