Since it's a bye-week, the only thing to really talk about is the past and hopefully the possibility of BCS in the future. But right now I'm going to look back at the first eight games and whether or not this is where fans thought Utah would be at the start of the season.
In August, I wrote about tolerability toward the Ute program and Kyle Whittingham. The article looked at some possible scenarios and whether the fans would accept them. Of those, none had Utah opening the season 8-0. And that was the point, because I wanted to see how much we could tolerate from Whittingham this year. Could we feel good about Utah's chances if they stumbled against a weaker opponent or two, ending any shot at the BCS and conference championship? So far, we've avoided that possibility, which shows me how much this program really has grown under Whittingham.
When the season started, I knew Utah had the talent to win the Mountain West. I felt it would be difficult making the BCS, but the possibility in my mind existed, especially if they were capable of defeating Michigan in the opener. They did and since, Utah has slowly risen to become the best bet to bust the BCS this year. A lot of that has to do with the fact Whittingham has kept this team extremely focused, something that I believe was an issue in his first three seasons.
Firstly, there is the win at Michigan. The two years prior, Utah was completely embarrassed on the road against beatable BCS teams. So for this to be a win was a huge step in the right direction, as it showed the team was capable of playing up to its potential. Beyond that, though, they knew they could beat Michigan and delivered, a type of mindset you need if you're going to an elite team. Defeatism at this level is for the weak, programs that know their place in the college football word and unfortunately, I felt that had crept into the psychology of this team prior to their great run last year. I've mentioned before, but I believe it should be mentioned again, Utah has shown the signs of exorcising those demons.
Secondly, the true test may not have been Michigan at all and instead the second game of the season against UNLV. When you are playing at your highest of highs, you run the risk of losing your balance and tumbling back down to earth. We saw that the week after the Utes defeated #11 UCLA a year ago and there were some who wondered if it would be a problem again this year. A huge victory over a ranked team (24th in the coaches), a game against an upstart offense and the vulnerability of maybe looking past the opponent. After a sloppy first quarter, though, Utah put those doubts to rest and dominated the Rebels, who have shown to at least give some teams some major concerns (or in the case of Arizona State, season crushing losses). The Utes didn't let that happen. In fact, this has not been an issue all season long. The Utes went on to destroy Utah State and then didn't allow a clearly less talented Air Force team to win. That was a big indication that maybe this season was setting up to be different from years past.
Of course, the biggest indication of this may have been in the Utes' victory over Wyoming. That was a game many felt could be a trap game because it was on the road and against an opponent looking for a bit of revenge after all that went down last year. Add in the fact Utah was coming off a pretty tough victory over Oregon State and you can see why some worried. The Utes, though, didn't panic and easily defeated the Cowboys.
Thirdly, this team seems to be improving more and more as the season goes on. Some teams regress, others stay the same throughout, but I think Utah is a better team today than they were the week of the Michigan game. That is good news, because it means they might just be peaking at the right time. And that's what they need, since the next four games will be the biggest of Whittingham's career and will prove to be the difference between a Mountain West championship along with a BCS bowl berth and that of maybe even a 9-3 finish. Which would be pretty devastating for a team that started 8-0.
So four games remain, two on the road, two at home. Well really, only one on the road, since San Diego State appears to be the worst team in the Mountain West and that should offer an easy victory for Utah -- though I don't want to get too cocky there. Those three games, however, do concern me. The Utes are capable of losing them all, which is why the peaking we've seen the past two games may be at just the right time.
New Mexico is first, a game in Albuquerque, a place Utah hasn't won in since 2004. Which is fitting, since that was the last time the Utes were 8-0. Of course, the last time they took an 8-0 record into Albuquerque was 1994 and we all know how that went. Which history will repeat itself, 1994, where the Lobos unravel the prospects of a perfect season, or 2004, where the win proves to be a decent enough road victory for an undefeated Utah team? Well hopefully it's the latter and I have confidence it will be, but it's going to take a superb effort on Utah's part to make it happen.
If Utah is lucky enough to be 9-0, their game against TCU will be epic. The Frogs should not lose from here until that game and that could be the biggest game in Mountain West history (yes, who would have thought that at the beginning of the season?). But if you're like me, you don't want to get too excited at the prospects, especially with the Lobo game looming large after the bye-week. Then again, this team has not given me any reason to doubt their abilities. The first eight games proved that.