The last time Florida siphoned a coach from the Mountain West, Utah was lucky enough to retain Urban Meyer through its bowl game.
Colorado State won’t get a last dance with Mountain West Coach of the Year Jim McElwain on Saturday when it takes on the 23rd-ranked Utes in the Las Vegas Bowl, but the Rams could still have plenty of confidence in their steps after the former Alabama offensive coordinator’s program-flipping season in Fort Collins.
Utah (8-4, 5-4 Pac-12), meanwhile, is back in a bowl after a two-year absence with hopes of improving on its 10-1 postseason record dating to 1999.
In addition to being former Mountain West foes, the border-state schools now share the distinction of feeding the SEC power with two of its last three coaches after McElwain accepted the Florida job following the Rams’ first 10-win season since 2002.
In its third season under McElwain, Colorado State (10-2, 6-2 Mountain West) rose to conference relevance with a nine-game winning streak that earned it a three-week stay among the Top 25.
“We have to be happy for him. He came in and he helped us out,” said running back Dee Hart, a graduate transfer from Alabama who arrived on campus over the summer because of his relationship with McElwain. “He put us back to where Colorado State wanted to be at.”
While the Rams consider their long-term coaching options, offensive coordinator Dave Baldwin will be charged with carrying that success into bowl season while also recovering from a 27-24 loss at Air Force on Nov. 28.
Offensively, the Rams took off in McElwain’s system as quarterback Garrett Grayson, wide receiver Rashard Higgins and Hart paced an attack that ranked 12th in FBS in total offense (497.8 yards per game).
Grayson, the Mountain West Offensive Player of the Year with 32 touchdown passes and six interceptions, overhauled the school’s passing records and finished second in FBS passer rating (171.3) behind Oregon Heisman winner Marcus Mariota. Higgins, just a sophomore, was the nation’s leading receiver with 149.1 yards per game and 17 touchdowns. Hart’s role grew as the season progressed, and he totaled 564 yards and 10 rushing scores in his last four games.
“The sky is the limit (for the offense),” said Grayson, who’s entering his final collegiate game. “We are a very talented group.”
Utah’s pass defense could keep things grounded. The Utes led the nation in sacks (52) and allowed 245.0 yards per game through the air, which ranked third in the Pac-12. Against the run, Utah ranked ninth (158.1).
While the Rams opened their season with a 31-17 neutral-site win over Colorado for a second straight win against the Pac-12 and went 2-0 against Power Five conference foes – also winning at Boston College on Sept. 27 – Utah closed its conference slate with a 38-34 road win over the hapless Buffaloes.
Aside from that shared foe, the discrepancy in competition was drastic. Three of Utah’s four losses came against ranked opponents, and it gained plenty of Pac-12 respect by winning 30-28 at then-No. 8 UCLA on Oct. 4. The Utes crossed back into the Mountain West once and trounced Fresno State 59-27 on Sept. 6.
The Rams might have grabbed more national headlines because of the high-profile coaching developments, but they didn’t play a ranked opponent and have lost their last 15 games against the Top 25.
The Utes, meanwhile, weren’t quite as flashy as the Rams but were 2-3 against ranked Pac-12 foes.
Utah’s close contest against Colorado – which went 0-9 in the league – might not have been its finest moment, but coach Kyle Whittingham said he’s just happy the program has shifted to winning those games after going a combined 5-13 in the conference the previous two seasons.
“Seems like every week has come down to the last possession or even the last play at times,” Whittingham said. “We’re finding ways to win most of them and that’s very encouraging, because the last couple years we were just the opposite of that. We were not finishing and finding ways to win those close games.”
Plenty of that had to do with the decision-making of quarterback Travis Wilson. The junior went the first eight games of the year without throwing an interception and finished with 17 TDs and four INTs.
The Utes could do more damage on the ground with Devontae Booker boasting a 1,350-yard, nine-TD season. Colorado State allowed at least 100 yards rushing in every game and ranked seventh in the Mountain West (187.6 yards per game).
Utah’s string of bowl success over the past 15 years includes two wins in the Las Vegas Bowl, but also its lone blemish – a 26-3 loss to Boise State in 2010.
The Rams ended last season with a win over the Pac-12’s Washington State in the New Mexico Bowl. It was their second straight postseason victory, but they’ve only played in two over the past eight seasons.
Utah won the last five meetings from 2006-10, but those contests came against Colorado State teams that finished with a combined 20-41 record.