This Utah Utes football team is one of mystery. Its projected starting quarterback Travis Wilson was finally medically cleared by doctors to play again. That didn't happen until after the Utes had lost five of their last six games last season--limping home to win the season finale against Colorado.
Such a poor display led to Utah missing out on a bowl game--the second straight year the Utes had come up empty. Yet hope remains eternal, season ticket sales are good and the Utes, well, they still play in the big, bad Pac-12 Conference--which also happens to play in the BCS, which will now be known as the College Football Playoff.
But the schedule released on Wednesday, July 9 will probably dim Utes’ fans hopes for any playoff--or bowl game--because it’s ugly.
It’s as if the Utes and their mighty band of men showed up to play six years too late in the Pac-12. Three years in this conference have equaled one seven-win season, two years of 5-7 ball, a quarterback who got knocked back into the middle of last year and countless dreams falling by the wayside in the forms of dropped passes, missed reads, blown coverages and missed assignments, tackles and well, everything.
In between that jumble of memories Ute fans would love to forget from last year are the good times. A thumping of rival BYU, the last game the two will play til 2017 and of course, the Stanford game. The game where everyone and their dog thought the Utes had finally arrived in the Pac-12.
And they did. They just got a target placed on their foreheads, was all. After that abomination of a game the Utes lost the next five and got the U decals knocked off their helmets--whether it was red, white and blue or just plain red didn’t matter.
Opponents were seeing red and Utah lost their next five by the combined score of 167-104. The Utes only surpassed the 21-point threshold once.
The game where every Utah fan stormed the field in a sea of red and glee--or the Stanford game--was later determined as the season went on to be that of confusion. Ute fans could not believe what they were seeing. Their dreams of getting back to a BCS bowl game were lost in the shuffle of more athletic, faster and stronger legs trampling over them as they reached out for a piece of the proverbial goal post.
And more of that same attitude, of being overwhelmed by a seemingly impossible task, is already haunting fans. They can’t believe that Utah took BYU, a sure-fire win that would have gone towards that magical six-win plateau, off the board--and replaced it with a game at Michigan.
Sure, Idaho State comes rolling into town to open the season as a warm-up game for the Utes--but then the Utes get defending Mountain West Conference champions Fresno State the following week at home. The good news is Utah does get Fresno without all-America quarterback David Carr, who is now thankfully in the NFL. Utah State found out how good Carr was in the conference championship last year--and the answer is very.
Then comes the game at Michigan. Why on Earth the schedule makers would put this game, during this point in the season, on the Utes slate of games is beyond anyone’s comprehension. Utah could easily be 3-0 had it retained BYU--or even added Utah State--on the schedule.
Instead, the Utes will roll the dice and travel to Ann Arbor and a cavernous 110,000-seat stadium--along with a fan base counting the days until Michigan fans get to play again.
So instead of being undefeated the Utes could be 2-1 going into a revenge game against Mike Leach and Washington State in week four. It’s a revenge game because the Utes got whacked last year in the Palouse, allowing 49 points to a team that shouldn’t have scored 49 points in the first place.
If the Utes manage to get past Wazzu and Coach Wacko Leach, then it’s just a leisurely trip down to UCLA and the Rose Bowl. If the Utes don’t outlast Wazzu, they could be 2-2 (or worse yet, 1-3) by the time Brett Hundley and the Bruins--a team some have picked as a preseason No. 1--do battle.
And then, the Utes get to go to Oregon State, a place that has not been kind to Utah teams with a quarterback and frankly, a team that is always faster, bigger, stronger and better than Utah. Did anyone mention UCLA is probably better than Utah, too?
So if--IF--Utah is 3-1 by the time it plays UCLA, chances are beyond solid that the Utes will not be at four wins by the time they play UCLA and OSU in weeks five and six.
The only prayer Utah has of getting to six wins is by knocking off one of the juggernauts coming to Rice-Eccles Stadium in the second half of the season. (More about that in a minute.) Consider this: had Utah defeated Oregon State in overtime in Salt Lake City last year, we’d all be talking about the bowl game Utah went to--and possibly won.
Instead, we’re talking about how the Utes can avoid going bowl-less in three years. That’s how small the margin of error is in the Pac-12.
If Utah can get help from anyone, it will have to come from the fans, the rabid bunches in red that inhabit Rice-Eccles Stadium like blood-thirsty savages. Some drink too much, others swear too often and still others sit calmly in their seats--but all have one thing in common: they don’t like to lose.
Not only do they not like to lose, they aren’t used to losing. Well, they’re becoming more and more accustomed to it in the Pac-12, but you get the idea. Another team that isn’t used to losing--but has lost more than it cares to--is USC, the Utes’ seventh opponent on the schedule.
Former BYU quarterback Steve Sarkisian, a despised man now in two places, brings his Trojans into Rice-Eccles for what should be a track meet. You have new OC Dave Christensen’s high-octane offense going up against Clancy Pendergast’s stingy, NFL-like defense. If the Utes can get to 4-3 with an amazing upset win over USC, all the better since it would be over Sark, too.
Utah's work still won’t be close to done, however. The Utes will then board a place the next week for sunny Tempe to take on Arizona State, the team that temporarily bid adieu to Travis Wilson’s thinking cap and the Utes in a grimy 20-19 win at Rice-Eccles. Chances that the Utes return to Salt Lake City at 4-4 overall are beyond good.
That brings us to quite possibly the most intriguing match-up to that point of the season when Oregon comes to Rice-Eccles. If the Utes are in bowl contention by this point, you can guarantee a nationally televised game will be broadcast. If not it will still be entertaining because both teams can throw the football and the Ducks have Heisman candidate Marcus Mariota and a slew of All-Stars.
Then comes the rubber match of all rubber matches, the game at Stanford. The problem with having to play a team you upset one year is that you usually have to play them the next. The Cardinal were in position to have a great and perfect season until the Utes spoiled it. Don’t look for a repeat performance this year.
So now the Utes could be at 4-6 overall, placing them in a similar situation as last year. Of course last year's game 11 was that trip to Pullman--and a 49-37 loss at Washington State. The year before that, game 11 was a 34-24 loss at Rice-Eccles to upstart Arizona. Both came somewhat unexpected.
So guess who has a chance to spoil the Utes quest at a second bowl game in four years? Arizona. And this one is also at Rice-Eccles. It’s like Groundhog Day every two years for these Utes--but they’re looking to change their fortunes this time around.
A win against a vastly improved, speedy Cats team coached now by legend Rich Rodriguez would mean so much to a Utes team--and to head coach Kyle Whittingham’s future. A loss would doom Utah in all likelihood to another five-win season--provided it can beat rival Colorado.
A win over Arizona and a win over Colorado would mean everything to these long-suffering Utes. If they can win one big game against one of the Pac-12 juggernauts--and defeat Arizona and Colorado--they would go bowling for the first time in three years. Is it possible? Sure, anything’s possible--it’s just not likely with such a brutal schedule.