When you're good, hype generally seems to follow. For Utah, we've seen various degrees of hype over the past several years and unfortunately, most of the time the Utes have failed to live up to all that preseason buzz.
Hype builds often by the success of the team's prior year. We saw that in 2004, as the Utes were on the heels of a pretty great 10-2 season and because of this, many pundits and fans had them pegged to go undefeated and crash the BCS. This before a game was even played and that's exactly what happened. Utah went undefeated and subsequently became the first non-BCS team to play in a BCS bowl game. However, since then, Utah has struggled living up to its preseason hype.
Though Urban Meyer had left for Florida and Utah's offense was a shell of its former self in 2005, most agreed the Utes would not miss a beat. They were picked to win the Mountain West by nearly every preseason publication and some even hinted at another run to the BCS. What happened, though, was far from predicted.
Utah did start out the 2005 season well, defeating Arizona in a nationally televised game, but soon watched their conference hopes severely damaged with a devastating overtime loss to TCU, who won the Mountain West in that inaugural season. Utah would also find itself losing close conference games to Colorado State, San Diego State and New Mexico. But when all hope seemed lost, Utah rebounded for arguably the biggest win in Kyle Whittingham's career, stunning the BYU Cougars down in Provo and barely reaching the number of wins to guarantee a spot in a bowl game.
The Utes then used that bowl game to completely destroy a top-25 ranked Georgia Tech team to end Whittingham's first season with a 7-5 record. Not terrible, but far from great. Of course, it was that ending, the improbable two-game winning streak, that revved up the preseason hype machine for another year.
Throughout the summer of 2006, Utah garnered much preseason praise because of their strong 2005 finish. And though most of the wins in 2005 came under the leadership of quarterback Brian Johnson, it was Brett Ratliff who lifted Utah from the ashes in their final two games and salvaged what was looking like a bleak season. The fact he was returning, as was much of the offense that season, sans Quinton Ganther, most felt Utah would contend with TCU for the Mountain West championship. Some even dared to suggest the Utes would roll through the season unscathed, again making a BCS bowl game. This, though, hinged on their showing in an early out of conference game against a solid, but decimated, BCS team.
I don't think I need to really get into Utah's 2006 loss to UCLA. Bu let's just say that it proved all the prognosticators wrong and that year ended up being the most frustrating season Utah fans had suffered through since 2002. Yes, Utah managed to win 8-games, but four of the five losses were pretty unbearable. As much as Brett Ratliff will be endured to the final two games of the 2005 season, he will also be remembered for the spotty 2006 play, which unfortunately continues to be a major mark on Kyle Whittingham's coaching resume.
The misfortunes of that 2006 season, coupled with the difficult out of conference schedule in 2007, left little preseason hype for the Utes last summer. It was actually the first year since 2003 where not much was expected of them. And while many Ute fans hoped to contend for the Mountain West, we generally believed the team would win eight to nine games. There was also a strong realization Utah could start the season 0-1, which is exactly what happened. Unfortunately, the season took a far worse turn than any fan had expected, as Utah lost a heartbreaker to Air Force in week two, stunned UCLA in week three and then laid the biggest egg known to man in week four against UNLV. While Utah managed to win its eight regular season games, nine when you count the Poinsettia Bowl, it happened in far different fashion than Utah fans expected.
How Utah won those nine games, especially how they finished the season, has once again laid the foundation for preseason hype. The Utes finished 2007 winning eight of their last nine games, with that lone loss coming in the final seconds at BYU. Because of this strong finish, most people are once again building up Utah's chances this year to not only win the Mountain West, but maybe even play in a BCS bowl. Obviously this is good, but have the Utes learned from their past mistakes?
The one common theme between each of the past two seasons, and this one, is that Utah opens the year on the road against a BCS team. Like in 2006, Utah will be playing a team that will be rebuilding. Alas, the 2006 Bruins weren't very good and clearly not very well coached. Michigan, at least, is well coached and if Utah plays as tepid as they did in 2006, expect a similar result to what we saw in the Rose Bowl two seasons ago. Not something many Utah fans want to admit or even think about.
This really is the season Utah has to live up to the hype. Another stumble out of the gate will only demoralize this team and put us right back in familiar territory: Playing well only because their backs are against the wall. Well while that mentality is great and I love the Never Say Die attitude of Kyle Whittingham's Boys, it's not how you build a successful program. You can't rely on the last gasp of air to survive every single time. Or eventually you'll try to breathe, only to find there won't be any air left and once that happens, it's all over. This team has shown it's capable of playing well, but that's only when things are at its worst. If Utah can extend that type of mindset to the entire season, they will not only live up to the hype, they will exceed it.