SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Lil’ old Utah, the Little Engine That Could of college football, had emerged from the shadows of the Wasatch Mountains to take a rare turn on center stage Friday night, eager to impress the College Football Playoff selection committee and maybe — just maybe — earn a spot alongside the behemoths of Ohio State, Louisiana State and Clemson.
All the under-recruited and overachieving Utes had to do was dispatch an Oregon team that for the last couple months had looked largely dead on its feet.
At worst, they would end up in the Rose Bowl. At best, they would be in the playoff.
Instead, the Utes looked like they did not even belong on the same field as the Ducks, getting beaten up and down both lines of scrimmage in a 37-15 loss in the Pac-12 Conference championship game.
“My senior year, the stage is set and we just don’t show up,” said Utah quarterback Tyler Huntley, who was sacked six times and threw an interception in the end zone. He was still seething a half-hour after the game ended.
He was also not alone. This, after all, was the second consecutive season that the Utes had floundered here, having lost to Washington by 10-3 last year. But this one came with greater opportunity costs: Had Utah won and accumulated a modest number of style points, and with a Georgia loss to L.S.U. in the Southeastern Conference championship on Saturday night, the Utes were well positioned to reach the playoff ahead of the winner of the Big 12 championship between Oklahoma and Baylor.
“It’s obvious what was at stake — more than just the Rose Bowl,” said Darrin Paulo, a senior offensive tackle. “It’s disappointing. I can’t really wrap my head around it right now.”
The loss was also a painful one for the Pac-12 itself.
It ensured that for the third consecutive season — and the fourth in the last five — the conference will miss the playoff. So while the Pac-12 had eight teams in the Associated Press Top 25 poll at some point this season, and it was the only conference in which every team won at least four games, this is an era in which the measure of a conference is taken at the top.
“It’s very important,” Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott said of reaching the four-team playoff. “It’s become clear that’s become a litmus test for a lot of folks that follow the sport as to which teams make the playoff, which teams don’t.”
That the conference was pinning its hopes on Utah, not on Oregon, Southern California, Washington or Stanford — teams that in the last decade had injected themselves into the national championship picture — may be an indictment of the league.
But under Coach Kyle Whittingham, who arrived as an assistant 25 years ago under Ron McBride, ascending to head coach after Urban Meyer left following a perfect season in 2004, the Utes have been defined more by toughness than five-star recruits.
When the Utes, who finished 13-0 and second in the nation in 2008, moved to the Pac-12 three years later, Whittingham did not waver from his belief that hard-nosed football was a winning formula — even in a conference that has been known for developing N.F.L. quarterbacks and wide-open offenses.
“That’s been a point of emphasis for years,” Whittingham said. “Our No. 1 objective offensively is to be able to run the football with a physicality and a violence that takes its toll on the opponents, and defensively we want to make sure we want to stop the run.”
That’s what made the loss to Oregon so dispiriting.
“We lost in the one area we’ve been undefeated this year — the line of scrimmage,” Whittingham said after dropping to 11-2 for the season.
An early sign came on the game’s opening possession, when Utah’s punishing tailback Zach Moss was stuffed on third and 1, then was sliced down on fourth and 1 by safety Brady Breeze bolting off the edge.
The Utes, who found themselves down 20-0 at halftime, were no more successful on two other fourth downs in the first half: Huntley was swarmed at the line of scrimmage when he tried to scramble on fourth and 2 at the Oregon 31, and a false start on fourth and 1 from the Oregon 38 prompted a punt.
Then in the third quarter, after closing within 20-7, Utah came up empty again when Huntley’s pass on a quick slant from midfield was broken up on fourth and 2.
On the other side of the ball, the Utah defense, which had built its sterling resume against four freshmen quarterbacks and a third-stringer, quickly found itself facing a different problem.
Justin Herbert is an almost certain first-round N.F.L. draft pick, and Oregon’s offense is built around an offensive line with four seniors and sophomore tackle Penei Sewell, who was chosen by Pro Football Focus as the conference’s offensive player of the year.
Herbert had plenty of time to throw, picking out wide-open Johnny Johnson III for a 45-yard touchdown pass, and C.J. Verdell rolled up 208 yards on 18 carries, including 70-yard and 31-yard touchdown runs in the fourth quarter.
On the final one, Verdell high-stepped his way into the end zone.
As he did, the Oregon fans who packed the end zone saluted him and the band broke into song. On the Utah sideline, shoulders began to slump and Whittingham looked up at the scoreboard, waiting to watch a replay — searching for a clue to where it all went wrong.