I haven't used this term all season because I hate to box the Utes into such a subjective statement. If they do actually lose, it's hard to really salvage anything out of that loss if you're putting it all on the line in your mind. With that said, I can't help but think the Poinsettia Bowl is a huge game for varying reasons.
With a victory, the Utes can do something only done once before in program history - record back-to-back ten-win seasons. That happened from 2003 to 2004 and it's often considered the most successful two-year stretch by a Utah team. And though finishing 10-3 in 2009 probably won't hold as much weight as the 10-2 finish in 2003, it still is rather solid for a rebuilding year.
The alternative, unfortunately, is another 9-4 season and most likely a finish outside of the top-25. At first glance, it isn't entirely an awful rebuilding campaign. However, if you dig deeper, you see this season has pretty much been a mile long and an inch deep. Utah has been good at beating the teams they should beat and that's it. They've yet to win a game against a better opponent (Oregon, TCU) or one equal to their stature (BYU).
Cal offers yet another opportunity to record an important and memorable win for the the Ute football program. If they fail in that regard, it will be the first time in a very long time (2000) where the Utes failed to gain one eventful win.
2008 was chalk full of them. 2007 had victories over UCLA (11th nationally), Louisville (a year removed from finishing 6th nationally), TCU and Navy in the Poinsettia Bowl. 2006 was a very similar season to 2009 - yet Utah managed to beat a good Frogs team that finished 11-2 and 21st nationally). While 2005 had wins over BYU and Georgia Tech in the Emerald Bowl.
If the Utes fail to beat Cal Wednesday, this season will probably go down as the most mediocre 9-win campaign in program history. It certainly won't feel like 9-wins and much of the spring and summer will be spent looking back at what could have been instead of expecting to build on what could be a signature win this season.
That point, the part about building on a win in the bowl game, is more meaningful in my mind than anything I mentioned above. It's something that faced the 2007 Utes after they entered the Poinsettia Bowl on the heels of a hard-fought loss to the Cougars down in Provo.
Prior to that game, I pretty much said it was a must-win here on the blog because I believed it could set the foundation for something special in 2008.
For Utah to return to the national stage, it must prove they have sustainability in college football. Losing to Navy would solidify the fact Utah is a regressing program that got lucky during their winning streak. College football is fickle like that and a victory over Navy would continue keeping Utah relevant, while a loss would almost certainly place them amongst college football's most irrelevant programs.
I know it sounds like I'm putting a lot on this game, but I do think there is a big difference between 9-4 and 8-5. Just as there is a huge difference between 10-3 and 9-4, however, that is something Utah failed to attain with a loss to BYU in November. But now they can somewhat make up for it and it all will begin with a victory against Navy.
The Utes gained an important win and used that as a springboard to success in 2008. Now I'm not suggesting 2010 will be similar, but it's never easy regrouping after a loss. Especially when this team has found itself on the losing end of every game they've played against a decent opponent.
That's the big difference between 2007 and 2009. In 2007, Utah managed to win some big games during their win streak. Knocking off a hot Bruins team in Salt Lake the way they did, even if it was followed by a disastrous effort a week later against UNLV, was an important step for this team. As was going on the road and beating the Cardinals, who had yet to fully tank as of that point. Add the victory over the Frogs in Fort Worth and you have a season that probably could have been a lot better than it was if there hadn't been a slew of injuries earlier in the year.
We have similar questions about this year's Utes team. They are a play or two away from being 11-1 right now and most likely a top-ten team. That didn't happen. The difference is that the '07 squad proved themselves at times throughout that season. They bounced back after a horrific loss and built a seven game winning streak when everyone had written them off. This year's Utes had a similar winning streak (six), but it came against no one and with expectations higher than the results on the field.
Because of this, I actually believe there is more to lose in this Poinsettia Bowl than two years ago and I was pretty committed to the idea of a must-win back then. Utah hasn't ended the season with two consecutive losses in over ten years and has a chance to remain ranked in a rebuilding year. That's an important step for a program that fought with keeping itself relevant after the Urban Meyer show left town.
Winning Wednesday establishes that. It guarantees Utah another top-25 finish, ten wins, nine straight bowl wins and momentum heading into the next season. The latter is important because Jordan Wynn most likely will be the Utes' quarterback when football kicks off late next year. For him, it's all about creating the confidence and mental toughness needed to lead Utah through a great season.
What we saw in 2007 was a game where Brian Johnson proved he was a gamer. He led the Utes to a comeback victory over Navy and carried that over into the next year. The possibility for Wynn to do that is there and makes a win all the more important. Because if he loses, that would put him at 0-3 in big games this season. Mentally, it might not have much of an impact - until the next big game comes up and people question whether he has it. Well, I think he does have it. I think Wynn is capable of being a very good quarterback and can ease our doubts by guiding Utah to a victory in a couple of days.
If he fails, if the Utes' bowl winning streak is snapped, Utah not only will have to fight preseason perception that will undoubtedly question their chances, they'll have to fight the mindset that maybe this team isn't built to win the big games. Sure, they'll get by on the cupcakes and pad their win total with easy wins over easy opponents, but if they wilt and falter against the elite, no one will take them seriously. In fact, Utah is only being taken seriously this season because of what they did last season. And as we saw in 2006, a full two seasons after the accomplishments of playing in the BCS, if you can't keep it going, no one will take notice. You won't be relevant anymore.
Winning here would accomplish much of what we wanted from these Utes: ten wins, a bowl victory and finishing the season ranked. There might not be a conference championship or win over BYU - but for a rebuilding year, it's acceptable and most importantly, sustains what was accomplished last year.
Because of this, I can't help but think this game is a must-win.