With their win over UNLV, the Utes have officially played half their regular season schedule. They sit at 5-1 and 2-0 in Mountain West play, they're ranked in the top-twenty and poised to challenge for the Mountain West title. Or essentially what many of us expected heading into the season.
Yet I can't help but think, six weeks in, I still don't know how good this Utes team really is. They've had some issues on the offensive end that has muddled many of their wins. It's also unclear due to the fact they really haven't played all that tough of a schedule.
In my lead up to the 2009 season, I discussed how the schedule was front-loaded with easy opponents and that it would provide Utah a chance to gain the confidence needed to contend for the Mountain West title. I still stand by that. Against that schedule, they've won five and lost only once - a tough defeat in the final minutes against Oregon.
But as we begin the second half of the schedule, are the Utes where they need to be to take this season to the next level? It's hard to say. In fact, Utah really hasn't been in this position recently. And what I mean by that is either they are rolling through their schedule at the halfway mark (2008, 2004) or struggling to find their footing (2007, 2006, 2005, 2002...).
To expand on that idea, the Utes have only started the season 5-1 four times since the 1998 season. 2003, when they finished 10-2 and won the Mountain West; 2001, when they went 8-4 and finished with three conference losses; 1999, when they finished 9-3 and tied for the Mountain West Championship; and of course, this season.
In each one of those seasons - outside of 2003 - Utah stumbled at times throughout the remainder of their last games. Of course, the McBride-era records indicate not the halfway point, but a game into the second half of the season, since 2006 was the first year with 12 regular season games.
But that doesn't seem to be too big of a problem when looking at Utah's similar starts over the past ten years.
In 1999, the Utes opened the season 6-1 before losing to Colorado State and Wyoming in back-to-back games. The loss cost them a shot at an outright title, even though they did rebound to win out (including wins over BYU and then Fresno St. in the Las Vegas Bowl).
In 2001, Utah started the season 5-1 before limping to a 2-3 finish before stunning USC in the Las Vegas Bowl.
In 2003, Texas A&M beat the Utes early in the season and they nearly ran the table the rest of the way. Except in the second half of the year, after being ranked for the first time since the 1996 season (another 5-1 start), Utah lost at home to New Mexico. Though it should be noted they came back and won the Mountain West title outright, something no Utah team had done in over 50-years.
So which one of these courses looks likely for these Utes from what we've seen in the first six games? Again, I think it's unclear.
I don't think this team will only win 8-games. That means they would have to finish the second half of the season losing to Air Force, Wyoming, TCU and BYU. Though possible, it seems highly unlikely.
So 1999 and 2003 are the probable scenarios that face these Utes. In 1999, they were only really blown out in one game (Wyoming, which inexcusably happened at home). Beyond that, they barely lost by six to Boise State and then seven to Colorado State on the road.
With how Utah struggled in a close loss to Oregon, maybe 1999 will prove to be the familiar 2009 counterpart. If that's the case and Utah does lose two more games to finish the season 9-3 (say those losses come to TCU & BYU), are we comfortable with the final results?
I know in 1999 we were because the Utes ended the season beating BYU and then winning their bowl game. It washed away the bad taste of blowing an outright title with a loss to Wyoming.
But that was 1999. We were content with just being slightly better than good. This is different. You don't win two BCS bowls and produce two undefeated seasons in a five-year span and continue to hold mediocre expectations.
Keeping that in mind, I think expectations for the second half should be to enter the TCU game 8-1 and then the BYU game with a record no worse than 9-2.
Once we reach that point, then we can discuss finishing 12-1 or 11-2. But right now, I think it's important Utah get through this stretch and - like they did with the first six games - build confidence heading into the TCU game.
With how the schedule breaks down again, this should not be a problem. The Utes leave the state of Utah once the rest of the year - to play TCU. Before that game, they play Air Force, Wyoming and New Mexico - all at home. After TCU, before BYU, they host San Diego State.
Which means, based on what we've seen, I think it's safe to suggest Utah can enter their game against TCU at 8-1. That makes it a one-game season and anything can happen.
Hopefully, though, by that time they've been able to fix the problems that kept them back the first part of the season. If they can, I see no reason why they won't leave Fort Worth with a 10-1 record.