Utah lines up for the punt return in the game at Rice-Eccles Stadium where the UCLA Bruins beat the Utah Utes 17-9 on Saturday, Nov. 21, 2015

On Dec. 5, a new champion will be crowned in the Conference of Champions after the Pac-12 Championship concludes in the brand new Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara.

A Stanford-USC matchup is what many predicted at the beginning of the season, but thanks to teams like Utah, it wasn’t as simple as anticipated. That’s what will make Saturday’s game between the Trojans and Cardinal so hard to watch for the Utes — they were right there.

Three weeks ago, the Utes had the opportunity to sit firmly atop the Pac-12 South. They just needed to grab a win on the road over Arizona. The Wildcats were coming off of three straight losses with just a 5-5 record at the time, and it looked to be a very winnable game for Utah.

Instead, Arizona outlasted Utah in a double-overtime game that saw the Wildcats’ backup quarterback beat a defense that was supposed to be Utah’s most reliable unit.

But even so, the Utes were still in the hunt.

The following weekend, Utah was given a gift when Oregon took down USC in impressive fashion. All the Utes had to do was beat UCLA — inside the confines of Rice-Eccles Stadium — and they were heading to their first Pac-12 Championship game since joining the conference (assuming they’d beat Colorado, which they did).

And man, that was the most boring yet suspenseful game I’ve ever seen. For goodness’ sake, Utah couldn’t find the end zone once the entire night. ONCE. Yet Travis Wilson led the Utes 48 yards with the clock winding down and marching into UCLA territory.

But a fumbled exchange between Wilson and Joe Williams (Wilson was not at fault for this) sent the ball, and Utah’s championship game aspirations, to the turf.

Again, they were so close.

So yes — this one hurt. Watching the preseason favorite narrowly edging out the No. 5 team in the Pac-12 South, according to the preseason coaches poll, just seems so wrong. Maybe that says something about the existence of “football gods.” Maybe the Trojans were just meant to be in the Pac-12 Championship game, no matter how bad they were playing earlier in the season.

But what is there to be said about destiny? For a while, Utah was that team of destiny, and it had fans in Salt Lake City believing that after that first loss, or even the second one, there was still hope for their Utes. Unfortunately, the football gods won this battle, and I guess things are back to the way they are supposed to be.

All that said, this has been one hell of a season for Utah. From big-time opening wins to hosting College Gameday to being mentioned seriously in the College Football Playoff talk, there aren’t many teams in the country that can compete with the résumé that the Utes have.

And if not for a late-game injury to star back Devontae Booker, or an ill-timed exchange on a handoff, Utah would be the team heading to California for the chance to clinch a Rose Bowl berth instead of USC.

So sure — there may be people out there who are upset with the way the season shook out. To those people, I say it’s okay to be disappointed, but the season was not a disappointment. If Utah fans were asked before the season whether a 9-3 regular season with losses to USC and UCLA was acceptable, many would have deemed it so. I bet most would have been ecstatic.

The Utes just barely missed out, and it definitely stings. But this was another step in the right direction for Kyle Whittingham and the Utes, and the excitement surrounding this program should continue to grow even after a season that some would call disappointing.

g.adams@dailyutahchronicle.com

@GriffDoug

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