It’s only the first week of November, but Utah and TCU’s chances of playing in January could be decided Thursday.
In a Mountain West Conference showdown, the 10th-ranked Utes and 11th-ranked Horned Frogs meet at Rice-Eccles Stadium with the winner having the inside track at earning a Bowl Championship Series bid.
Utah (9-0, 5-0) and TCU (9-1, 6-0) are atop the Mountain West, and are both vying for a spot in a BCS game. The Utes are eighth in the latest BCS standings, while the Horned Frogs are 12th.
“You always want to play in the big arena,” TCU coach Gary Patterson said. “Utah is a good football team - lot better at home. We’ve got a lot of work to do. We have to get everyone healed up and ready to go.”
The Horned Frogs can clinch at least a share of their first Mountain West title since 2005 with a victory, while Utah would still need to win at least one more game to earn a share of the crown.
The Utes, who have won nine straight home games, visit San Diego State next Saturday before wrapping up the regular season at home against No. 17 Brigham Young on Nov. 22.
After this game, TCU doesn’t play again until its regular-season finale on Nov. 22 at home against Air Force, which is tied with BYU for second place in the conference.
Before this season began, BYU was picked to finish first in the Mountain West, followed by Utah and TCU.
The Utes are off to their best start since the 2004 team - the school’s last conference champions - beat Pittsburgh in the Fiesta Bowl and finished 12-0, but they had some trouble in last Saturday’s 13-10 win over New Mexico.
Utah came into the game 12th in the Football Bowl Subdivision in scoring (39.0 points per game), but struggled much of the night on offense. The Utes got their only touchdown when quarterback Brian Johnson threw a short pass to wide receiver Jereme Brooks, who lateraled to Brent Casteel to complete the 7-yard scoring play with 3:23 left in the third quarter.
It was an overall sloppy game for the Utes, who had a muffed punt, a late interception that killed a potential touchdown drive and nine penalties.
“We came out with a win, but we know we can play a lot better,” said Johnson, who completed 23 of 32 passes for 195 yards, one touchdown and one interception. “We have to do a better job of eliminating errors.”
Johnson and the Utes offense didn’t have much success in last season’s meeting with TCU, gaining only 227 total yards, but still managed to come away with a 27-20 victory. Utah may have trouble moving the ball again Thursday against a stout Horned Frogs defense.
TCU ranks third in the nation in scoring defense (10.8 points per game), and second in total defense (214.5 ypg). Its run defense, which leads the nation with 38.9 yards allowed per game, will be tested by a Utah team that has rushed for 520 yards over its last two games.
The Horned Frogs, who have won five straight games by an average of 28.4 points since a 35-10 loss to then-No. 2 Oklahoma on Sept. 27, limited UNLV to 175 total yards in Saturday’s 44-14 victory.
TCU sophomore quarterback Andy Dalton threw for three touchdowns against the Rebels and added 52 rushing yards on nine carries.
“That was a big win for us, especially on the road,” Dalton said. “When they asked me to run, I was able to do what I could. We were able to score points. Now we can focus on the next game.”
Dalton is likely relishing the chance to redeem himself after last season’s performance against Utah, in which he completed 20 of 45 passes for 164 yards and a career-high four interceptions.
He has been stellar lately, passing for nine touchdowns and no interceptions in the last three games after missing two contests because of a right knee injury. Dalton had no TD passes and two picks in his first five games of the season.
TCU has lost four of its last five meetings with Utah.