October 29th, 1994.
Utah was coming off a dominating victory over UTEP, their offense crushing the Miners for 52 points. It gave the Utes the second best start in program history at 8-0 and they climbed into the top ten, settling in at ninth nationally.
They were in the drivers seat for not only an outright conference championship, but an undefeated season as well. Everything was working out perfectly for the Utes and a trip to Albuquerque to take on the 3-6 New Mexico Lobos looked like another potential easy victory, bolstering their position in the rankings and moving them one step closer to that perfect 12-0 finish.
October 27th, 2008.
Here we sit, a little less than a week away from Utah's game against New Mexico. The Utes enter that game on the heels of a bye week, however, they are coming off a crushing offensive performance against Colorado State. They're 8-0 and ranked 9th in the nation, while taking on a Lobo team that doesn't look all that scary . New Mexico this time is 4-5, not far off from their 1994 record.
What happened in 1994 very well could happen again. The Utes went into that game and could never really put the Lobos away, losing in a tight contest. It was a loss that shaped the Ron McBride years at Utah, so close to attaining unimaginable success, only to have everything fall apart in the end.
I have talked in length about this game, as I believe it was one of the defining moments of the McBride era here at Utah. And while at the time no one could have imagined that would be the pinnacle of his success, it was. That's not to say the decline happened fast, it didn't, but if you chart McBride's career at Utah, the 1994 10-2 season marks the highest point and it was a gradual decline from that point on. Sure, he saw success in 1999 and 2001, but they were often sandwiched in between underperforming years.
Now when the Utes lost to the Lobos fourteen years ago, it set the tone over the next eight years that the program could never take the next step. With that loss, along with the Air Force loss a week later, the Utes' chance of a WAC championship quickly diminished. McBride would go on to win two conference titles at Utah (1995 and 1999), yet neither were outright and only 1999 was a real memorable season. But that wasn't the only thing lost on that day in Albuquerque. No, the Utes also lost a chance to really contend for a national championship. Unlikely as it may have been, a 12-0 Utes team in 1994, with wins over four ranked opponents, would have gone along way at shaping Utah football in the 1990s. It didn't happen and instead, the Utes had to settle for good, but never great. Well at least until Urban Meyer, but I won't get into that.
This time, much of the same potential is riding on a road game against the Lobos. It's a different coach, but the possibilities are the same and one also has to wonder if the eventual outcome is the same as well if the Utes lose Saturday. A good program, but one that is never really ever great.
So the Utes enter Saturday's game 8-0 and are looking to move to 9-0 for only the second time in school history. They're tenth in the BCS rankings, 9th nationally and only four wins away from the school's second BCS bowl berth. But it all won't matter if, like in 1994, they leave Albuquerque with a loss. How does that change the dynamics of Ute football under Kyle Whittingham? Well like 1994, the obvious deficiencies won't be known for a few seasons. What we do know is that when all the chips were down back then, Utah failed and once the 1994 season ended, they only saw the top-25 once again under McBride, after starting the 1996 season 7-1. This time, once again, the chips are down, how will Utah respond?
New Mexico is a talented opponent and they can give Utah fits, but they aren't better and the Utes should win. Clearly, though, should and will are two different words. That is what makes me nervous for Saturday and I'm sure I am not the only one. And it's because while I have far more confidence in Whittingham today than I did two seasons ago, there are still some lingering doubts. And it's not because of anything Whittingham or the Utes have done the past two seasons, rather, it's about what they haven't done.
Now what they haven't done is been put in the position like this. A road game against a team that has a history of beating Utah when they are 8-0 and ranked in the top ten. What we learned from BYU two weeks ago is that if you don't come to play with the consistency it takes to win week in and week out, someone is going to knock you off. It's not often the Lobos host a top ten team at home and their fans and players are going to be fired up for this game. It's their biggest home game of the season and any sign of weakness from the Utes could unravel their entire game plan. I mean, you've got to think there is a ton riding on this game. It's their last tough roadie and if they do leave with a victory, they're only three wins away from BCS certainty. That includes two huge home games against TCU and BYU. But it won't matter if they lose Saturday.
This is where my doubts stem from. It's not anything Whittingham has done in the past, rather with what is riding on this game, something Whittingham and these players have not faced as a team. In 2004, Urban Meyer figured out how to keep the team balanced enough to not allow those opponents gunning for the upset to draw blood early. That's what Whittingham and the Utes will have to do Saturday. If they come out and punch the Lobos in the mouth, they will win. If they allow the Lobos to hang around for the first three quarters, they very well could lose. Then it will be 1994 all over again.
Of course, similarly, Utah played the Lobos on the road four years ago and won. So for all the discussion about 1994, 2004 also proves to be a template for this year's Utes.