Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl

Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl

Utah (8-4) vs. Colorado State (10-2) Dec. 20, 3:30, ABC
Here’s The Deal: A couple of familiar foes reunite in Las Vegas, both determined to finish breakthrough seasons on a high note.

Utah and Colorado State have met 77 previous times, most recently as members of the Mountain West Conference. And both programs often compete for the same recruits in the Mountain Region. The 22nd-ranked Utes are in the midst of their best season since joining the Pac-12 in 2011. The breakout came at a particularly good time for head coach Kyle Whittingham, who began the season facing doubts about his ability to keep the team competitive. Utah has been ranked for much of the campaign, thanks to notable wins over USC, Michigan, UCLA and Stanford, the latter three on the road. Whittingham and his will kids will have to tune out the noise, as the coach’s name periodically gets linked to openings that surface this month.

The Rams have tapped into the old Sonny Lubick days in 2014, winning their most games since 1997. The downside to success? It’s cost the program a coveted leader, Jim McElwain, who’s now Florida’s head coach. Offensive coordinator Dave Baldwin will run the team on an interim basis. While an early loss to Boise State kept Colorado State from winning the Mountain West, this season was filled with milestones. The Rams’ first 10-win season since 2002 included victories over rival Colorado and Boston College, and marked a striking turnaround from the disastrous Steve Fairchild tenure in Fort Collins.

Why Utah Might Win: The Rams haven’t faced a defense as tough or as physical as the one it’ll see at Sam Boyd Stadium. This is a standard Ute D, blue-collar, strong at the point of attack and exceptional at getting pressure. In fact, Utah leads the nation with 52 sacks, fueled by roving LB Jared Norris and the dynamite bookend of Nate Orchard and Hunter Dimick. The matchup between the ends and Ram LT Ty Sambrailo, a coveted NFL prospect, will be one of the top games-within-the-game.

– Colorado State allows 4.7 yards per carry, which won’t cut it this week against downhill-running Devontae Booker. The junior ranks second in the Pac-12 with 1,350 yards and nine touchdowns on 266 carries. Not only can Booker wear down an average Ram defense, but QB Travis Wilson can be dangerous when he begins to gallop outside the pocket.

– If the Utes don’t have the best special teams unit in America, they’re certainly in the discussion. P Tom Hackett, PK Andy Phillips and return man extraordinaire Kaelin Clay were named to the All-Pac-12 First Team. Clay, in particular can take a game over with his jets and elusiveness in the open field. He’s ripped off three special teams touchdowns this season, including three on punts.

Why Colorado State Might Win: The Rams boast the Big 3 on offense to keep the Utes from finding their footing on defense. Colorado State is ideally balanced with the running of Dee Hart and the passing of Garrett Grayson to Rashard Higgins. Higgins has been unstoppable, catching a nation’s-best 17 touchdowns en route to being a Biletnikoff Award finalist. This is a Pac-12 attack running around in Mountain West unis.

– Not only does Colorado State house the Mountain West’s top offense, but Utah is dead last in the Pac-12. Booker is terrific, but the Utes lost their pop and diversity when big-play WR Dres Anderson was lost to an injury. Plus, CB Bernard Blake leads an underrated Ram secondary that’s given up just 13 touchdowns passes this season. CSU will be able to press up its safeties and linebackers to create traffic jams for the Utah backs.

– Baldwin isn’t just any interim coach. He’s actually the mastermind behind the prolific Ram offense. And he’s auditioning to be McElwain’s successor, so there’s zero chance that his head will be elsewhere. McElwain will be missed, no doubt. But with Baldwin in charge, there’ll be a sense of continuity in Fort Collins, and no shortage of motivation for a staff that could be coaching for its future.

What’s Going To Happen: It’s been a long time since Colorado State faced a Top 25-caliber opponent, and it’ll show.

The Rams are an explosive team, with enough offensive weapons to beat a lot of teams. But Utah is a tall order, because of its ability to dictate tempo with a more physical, methodical approach. The Utes can control the game to their liking with the running of Booker and a stout D that’ll play with something to prove after lacking consistency late. Plus, you don’t get better by losing a leader like McElwain. Grayson and Higgins will help keep things interesting throughout, but Utah will survive a close game.

Prediction: Utah 33 … Colorado State 28

Line: Utah -4 o/u: 58