I don't have to tell you expectations going into the 2009 season are high. While the Utes do see some turnover on offense, we're expecting a team that contends for a conference championship and flirts with 11 or 12 wins. That isn't to say the latter will happen, but with how things are set up for Utah, I don't believe 11-2 or 12-1 is out of the question. 10-3, though, might be the safe pick since they play their three hardest games on the road.
With that said, Utah's schedule is also perfect because it allows growth and that will be the most important thing to look at heading into the season.
Since the Utes will be breaking in a new offensive coordinator, quarterback and receivers, the fact their schedule is hardly frontloaded works best for this team. In fact, outside of the Oregon game, Utah only plays one team in its first seven weeks that went to a bowl game last year: CSU. Not very imposing, right?
This gives the Utes easier opponents to work out all their kinks -- and there will be some.
Right off the bat, Utah hosts Utah State. The Aggies might make strides under former Utah defensive coordinator Gary Andersen, but that isn't happening this season and nothing short of a complete and total meltdown would push this game into danger territory for the Utes. That isn't to say I'm taking the Aggies for granted, but let's be realists here, Utah just haven't struggled much against USU since their close 23-19 victory in 2001.
Both programs are at a far different state today than they were at the beginning of the decade. The Aggies went 4-7 that season and I'm guessing fans in Logan would be jumping for joy if that was the case this year.
So the Utah State game is essentially a glorified scrimmage for the Utes. It will tell us just how far Utah needs to go to attain what I mapped out as the goals for this season. It's a similar situation the Utes faced in 2005, where they defeated the Aggies 31-7. The score doesn't indicate just how much USU stayed competitive with Utah. At the half, the Utes were only up seven and only up fourteen going into the fourth. It wasn't a horrible game by any means, but it maybe gave us a prelude to the struggles Utah would face later in the season. I expect this year's game to give us an indication of how good or average the Utes are from the start.
Utah then travels to San Jose State a week later to take on the Spartans and I actually believe, outside of Oregon, this is the biggest game of the first-half.
This is a game the Utes should win. This is a game the Utes most likely will win, however, they still have some questions regarding their experience on offense and going on the road, only two weeks into the season, can prove daunting for a new quarterback. That isn't to say Spartan Stadium is a tough environment, it isn't, but a road game is still a road game and it's not like San Jose State is a horrible program. Maybe five years ago, but since Dick Tomey took over, they've been at least mediocre and that is a concern. They're also 13-5 at home under Tomey over the past three seasons. They can beat the Utes.
Of course, I don't think they will beat the Utes. San Jose State isn't a threat and shouldn't be a threat to a team that just finished the year before ranked second in the nation. This game will be a bit more of a challenge for Utah, but nothing they can't handle. That leaves them with another week to get things right before heading into Oregon.
If, as expected, the Utes are 2-0, they're going to enter Eugene ranked in the top-20. This game gives Utah their first big test of the season. Personally, I think it comes at the right moment. They have two weeks to manage their mistakes, but also they get a chance to measure their growth and do it at the point where if they do lose, it won't devastate the season. And let's face it, a loss here is possible.
Once you get beyond the Oregon game, the schedule eases up greatly until the final three weeks. Their two road games are against CSU (7-6 last year) and UNLV (5-7 last year). Potentially decent opponents, but not daunting opponents. The Rams could be good, but they have more questions than Utah and the Rebels -- well let's just say the Utes are probably looking forward to that game.
Beyond those two road games, the Utes host Louisville, Air Force, Wyoming and New Mexico. Two of those teams (Wyoming and New Mexico) have replaced their coaches and aren't expected to do anything this season and the other (Louisville) is probably likely to replace their coach at the conclusion of this year. That leaves the Falcons, who offer Utah their biggest home test of the season.
If there is a game not against Oregon Utah could lose during this stretch, I think it's this one. Even then, though, I'm pretty optimistic.
That leads up to the tough stretch. Murderers’ Row. Boardwalk and Park Place. If it weren't for Luxury Tax (San Diego State), Utah could possibly be doomed to a two-game losing streak.
It's perfect, however. Perfect because if everything goes right, Utah could enter their game against TCU either undefeated or at least undefeated in conference play. That means the championship very well could be decided in the final three weeks of the regular season.
The first ten weeks offer Utah a chance to build their confidence and set the tone for a late-season run. If you think back to 2005, you can pretty much pinpoint where the season spiraled out of control. That happened in game three against TCU. The Utes had entered 2-0 and on the cusp of the top-25, while the Frogs had just come off an embarrassing loss to rival SMU -- a week after their defeat of nationally ranked Oklahoma.
The Utes lost that game in overtime and it pretty much set up what would be a disastrous stretch through mid-October. That defined the 2005 season and essentially took what could have been a very good year and turned it into a mediocre year that ended on an extremely high note. But why?
I've always believed Utah lost their composure and confidence after that TCU game. Even though they bounced back and beat Air Force a week later, it became obvious this team could not handle close games. As the losses began to pile up, the harder it was for them to break that mindset. It eventually ended with a victory over UNLV in Las Vegas and the rest is history. But that five-game stretch decided the conference championship. Had Utah won every single one of those contests, minus North Carolina, they not only win the Mountain West (or at least a share), but finish the season with an 9-2 record (a season very similar to 2003). That's a far different situation than what they did face and it's not like the Utes were bad that year, because they weren't. As I mentioned, they took TCU to overtime, held the lead for most of the game and should have won. The Frogs also finished that season 11-1 and clearly were the best non-BCS team that season.
Now I know some might be thinking Oregon could be to this Utes team as TCU was to the '05 squad and at its basic level, it does seem to be the case. But the TCU game wasn't disastrous because Utah lost. It was disastrous because they lost their first conference game of the season. Any time you start the conference slate in the hole 0-1, it's very unlikely you win the championship. Most knew that game would eliminate a team from championship contention and it did. Unfortunately, it was Utah.
Losing close conference games are far more demoralizing to a team than losing an out of conference game, especially early in the season. It automatically makes your fight for a championship that much harder, whereas the other games don't matter nearly as much. Well unless you have BCS aspirations, but even then, you need to win your conference.
With the way Utah's schedule plays out, they can establish early conference success and that will become important down the stretch when everything is clicking. It gives them a chance to build their confidence, set the tone for the season and legitimately prove they're a threat for a repeat. Had they been stuck with TCU in week three, like in 2005, I'm fairly certain none of us would feel as confident as we do now.