I think we all know what this post is going to be about. For any Ute fan, 2003 marked the moment Utah football really leaped forward and became the program so many of us had hoped it would become under Ron McBride.
Much of that started with Oregon that season. That game wasn't the most impressive of the season or even the most important (I think Cal a few weeks earlier and BYU at the end of the season were bigger games), but it was a significant game for the 2003 Utes.
It was also the last time Utah played the Ducks. They won the game 17-13 to run their record to 4-1 and the rest is history.
But because of what that season meant for Utah and the games that really stood out, the Utes' victory over Oregon does seem to be overshadowed when we look back at that year. Much of this is because of the Ducks' own doing. They were ranked (19th in the AP Poll) and entered the game 4-1. Two weeks prior they were a top-ten team and coming off a huge win over 3rd ranked Michigan.
Yet between their huge victory over the Wolverines and Utah was a horrific loss to Washington State. It was a game that kind of foretold the struggles Oregon would see much of that season. While they did go 8-5 (playing in the Sun Bowl), they also lost 59-14 to Arizona State and 42-10 to Washington. Outside of their Sun Bowl loss to Minnesota (by a point, 30-31), Utah was their closest defeat. The others were blowouts.
It was this hit-and-miss situation the Ducks found themselves in that season and maybe it's playing out again.
Now I understand two games are not the appropriate window to get a complete feel and understanding of what a team can do, but it is similar. After their win over Michigan four games into the 2003 season, Oregon was being hyped as the Pac-Ten team. They shot up in the rankings, became the popular pick to win the conference and then they ran into a buzzsaw, never fully recovering.
Likewise, the 2009 Ducks were hyped as being a potential dark horse for the Pac-Ten title. They were given the gift of a high preseason ranking and then threw it all away when they ran into yet another buzzsaw. Sure, Oregon's misfortunes in 2003 started five weeks into the season, four weeks later than this year, but I do believe this is comparable.
I say this because I think the Ducks needed that game more than the Utes in 2003 and I believe the same could be said for this week. Oregon's season could very well be lost if they fall to 1-2 after this weekend. I'm not so sure the same could be said for Utah.
Don't get me wrong, I believe this is an important game that could define the season, but even if Utah is 2-1 after Saturday afternoon, they're still sitting in better position than the Ducks. Mostly because they're above .500 and outside of TCU and BYU, have an easier path to a winning record and a bowl berth.
If Oregon loses and falls to 1-2, especially with a new coaching staff, the groans will grow and the team will find itself on the brink. No program should be on the brink four weeks into the season and if that's the case, you know you're not on solid ground.
Something similar happened in 2007 when the Utes played at Louisville. Steve Kragthorpe had a less than stellar few weeks prior to the Utah game and talks about his firing were already bellowing throughout Kentucky. A win over North Carolina State (similar to the Ducks victory over Purdue) a week prior helped ease things a bit. But in the end, Utah went on the road and won a fairly impressive game.
If you'll remember, they were struggling prior to that game. Not many Ute fans expected a victory, even though Louisville had shown signs of weakness with their transition from one coaching staff to another. It didn't matter and Utah picked up an important victory that really set the tone for the rest of the season. For the Cardinals, though, it was a devastating loss.
Devastating because had they won that game, Louisville finishes the year 7-5 and go bowling. Obviously not the season many expected, but the wheels don't entirely come off and maybe Kragthorpe doesn't lose total control and confidence because of it.
The same issues face the Ducks Saturday. For Chip Kelly, confidence in his ability will only go as far as the success on the field. If they lose, I don't think their fans will be advocating his firing, but things will get dicey. With their schedule (Cal, @ UCLA, USC, @ Stanford, @ Arizona, Oregon State) they could be facing a losing season. Hell, maybe even worse than a losing season. All those games listed could be potential losses and if that's the case, it doesn't seem unrealistic to expect 8-losses if things get out of control for Kelly and his staff.
Which is why I believe this game is more important for Oregon. Utah and Kyle Whittingham can easily get away with a loss here. We're not expecting a BCS run anymore. We're not even expecting an 11-1 campaign with what we've seen the last two weeks. But a winning season, with this schedule, is still extremely likely. Hell, even ten-wins isn't entirely out of the question - even if they lose at Oregon. The Ducks aren't so lucky.
What does this mean for Saturday? Well I'm not quite sure. I think Kelly and his players understand what is at stake here and realize they need to start finding their footing fast or they could be eating dirt the rest of the season. That leads me to believe they'll come out extremely motivated and won't overlook Utah or play down to the Utes in any way.
That's not a good thing for Utah.
Then again, I also believe the Utes want to make a statement. They're being disrespected somewhat because they do have the nation's longest winning streak and yet they're falling in the polls (well one, anyway, they rose in the Coaches) and have become an afterthought. Granted, that should be expected after the performance Saturday, but I've got to think Utah too would be motivated to show everyone watching that the San Jose State game was more a fluke than anything else.
Looking at this, it does feel like the week leading up to Louisville. I'm not saying Oregon is as bad as the Cardinals in 2007, but it just feels the same for me. Oregon, like Louisville, had to replace its highly respected coach. Oregon, like Louisville, got off to a rocky start with said coach. Oregon, like Louisville, is playing a Utah team that has yet to live up to preseason expectations. The Ducks also have to establish something fast or they do risk faltering like the Cardinals.
It'll be interesting to see how well these comparisons hold up. I do believe Oregon will give Utah a tougher test than Louisville in '07, but will it be enough to win?
That's the burning question.