Pac-12 football: Utah enters October with no Rising, no offense and no clear path to a three-peat

The Utes are only one game out, but their challenge feels more dire

The Pac-12 champions are staggering, hobbling, aching, and limping into the thick of their schedule.

They have a slew of injuries as well.

After… one loss? Utah’s quest for a third consecutive conference title faces long odds.

Yes, after one defeat.

Because it’s the manner in which the Utes lost, not who they lost, that sets off the red alert.

They have two offensive touchdowns in the last two games, a win over UCLA and a loss at Oregon State, and are averaging 16 points per game against FBS competition.

This in a conference with four of the nation’s best offenses.

The Utes (4-1, 1-0) have been without starting quarterback Cam Rising for five games while doctors evaluate his surgically repaired knee. Nate Johnson, his primary replacement, was effective early in the season but not in conference play.

This in a conference brimming with elite quarterbacks.

The Utes are on vacation this week, so Rising could return for the Oct. 14 game against Cal. But, after missing spring practice, training camp, and five games, will Rising be ready to go when he returns? More than likely, he’ll need a few games to regain his pre-injury timing.

This is because a demanding schedule awaits.

After facing Cal, which lacks the offensive firepower required to pull off an upset in Rice-Eccles Stadium, Utah will play No. 7 Washington, No. 8 Oregon, and No. 9 USC in a four-week span.

Those teams have enough offense — more than enough — to knock the Utes out of the race.

(Not even a defense as strong as Utah’s can withstand the weekly pressure of knowing that allowing a second touchdown will lead to defeat. Cracking is unavoidable.)

In addition, there are multiple names on the injury list. The Utes are missing tailbacks Micah Bernard and Ja’Quinden Jackson, tight end Brant Kuithe, receiver Mycah Pittman, as well as offensive and defensive linemen and players.

No team in the conference has been hit harder, with the possible exception of Arizona State.

Now is the time to 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 is nearing the end of his third decade in charge of the program.

Utah’s toughness, accountability, and resilience should not be overlooked while there is still a glimmer of hope that Rising will return in time for the stretch run.

Two years ago, the Utes used the death of cornerback Aaron Lowe during the season to fuel their charge to the conference title.

Last year, they sneaked into the Pac-12 title game, survived USC’s initial onslaught, and then pummeled the Trojans into submission.

So ignore the Utes at your peril.

But, to be completely honest, it feels different this year.

The conference is better, the schedule is more difficult, and Rising’s status is more shaky.

The Utes are doomed if he does not return.

If he returns but isn’t fully recovered, they’re doomed.

If he does return and is close to 100 percent, they will face a slew of top-10 teams, plus Colorado, plus the conference championship, to reclaim the trophy.

All of this highlights why three-peats are uncommon: So much must go right for so many weeks and years that the physics of football and the laws of probability become the most formidable adversaries of all.

Utah thrives in the most difficult of environments. This is distinct.

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