Utah actually enters the 2009 season similar to how they entered 2008 - not favored to win the championship. Though some publications place the Utes at the top, they weren't the preseason media pick and recently, it seems they're projected to finish 2nd or 3rd behind TCU and BYU.
Of course, that is where the comparisons end, since Utah doesn't return near the talent they did last year and their conference schedule this season is far more difficult. But that doesn't mean Utah can't win the championship again this year and in fact, they just might have what it takes to at least win a share of it.
For starters, Utah is far more talented than every other team in the conference not named BYU and TCU. That automatically means their base level should be no worse than third. If that's their position, they only need to equal the output of either BYU and TCU to claim a split conference championship.
Of those two teams, BYU is probably more at Utah's level this season. However, since TCU does have to travel to Provo, it seems possible the Frogs lose at least one conference game. Which means if Utah beats every conference foe they should beat and even if they lose to TCU, they'll still be in position to tie the Frogs with a victory over the Cougars at the end of the season. Which is not a given, but with how solid poor Utah teams have played recently against better Cougar squads, you can't help but feel optimistic about their chances.
That means Utah's conference title hopes probably rest on whether or not TCU goes undefeated, especially in conference play. If they drop their game against BYU, it'll open the door for either the Utes or Cougars to claim the top prize. If they don't, then that means Utah will have to knock them off in Fort Worth for a shot and that might be asking a bit too much, though you never know.
So why won't they?
Well experience seems to be the biggest issue facing this year's Utes team. They have had to revamp the offense and though a good chunk of their defense is brought back, it won't be enough to compensate for the offensive struggles. If that is the case, the Utes very well may lose an early conference game to either Colorado State, Air Force or UNLV - hell, maybe two of those three. One loss there and you've got to think Utah's chances of repeating as conference champions goes straight out the window.
So they already have ground to make up if they drop one of those winnable conference games. That probably means they won't be able to walk into Fort Worth and beat the Frogs and though they've played BYU tough in the past, it could spell doom for them in Provo, as well.
If that happens, Utah is looking at a 3-loss (maybe more, though unlikely) conference season. Not horrible, but obviously not where they need to be to claim the crown.
Which one is more realistic? Well I actually think Utah will be playing for the conference title when they meet the Cougars down in Provo this November. I don't know if it's for a tie or an outright championship, but let's consider the following:
- Had Utah defeated either Wyoming or New Mexico in the 2006 season, they're playing for a share of the title with BYU. Think about that for a second, because 2006 is often regarded as the least-successful season under Whittingham. The Utes were a second-half meltdown and a desperate heave to the end zone away from sharing the title with BYU. Granted, they lost both those games, but the program has grown so much since then, I can't help but think those same mistakes (namely in the New Mexico and Wyoming games) won't be made this season.
- Though technically Utah was still in the hunt when they traveled to Provo in 2007 (the Cougars' game against SDSU was pushed back to the end of the season due to fires and Utah had 2-conference losses in one more game than BYU), it was a forgone conclusion the Cougars were going to win the title that year. Yet had Utah been able to not choke away victory against the Falcons at the start of the season (a game played only a week after being plagued by injury against the Oregon State Beavers), they're playing for the title again against BYU. That means they were 15-points from winning a conference title.