I don't think I'm going out on a limb here when I say Saturday's game against Louisville could be the difference between a really good season and one full of struggle and disappointment.
Right now, the Utes own a respectable 2-1 record and still control their destiny when it comes to a Mountain West Conference championship, ten-wins and a top-25 finish. True, no matter what happens Saturday, Utah still realistically has a shot at the conference crown, but a loss here will certainly expose them more than we could have ever imagined.
Which means this game is the most important of the season to date. Yes, even more important than Oregon. I say this because a loss against the Ducks didn't end the Utes' season. A loss this weekend, though, most definitely could.
This is why I see two possible scenarios post-Louisville.
If, as expected, Utah wins, they'll find themselves at 3-1. Not a bad start. They'll probably be on the cusp of the top-25 again (maybe even crack the Coaches Poll, depending on what happens this week) and enter a bye-week with some momentum after a struggle in Eugene seven days prior.
Their first conference game comes two weeks after Louisville and against Colorado State. If you haven't been paying attention lately to other teams in the Mountain West, you might be shocked to know the Rams are 3-0. Undefeated. Granted, their schedule hasn't been entirely difficult, but they do own wins over Colorado and a hyped up Nevada team many thought could push Boise State for the WAC crown and maybe even bust the BCS. That ain't happening.
If the Utes do win, it sets up for a crucial game against CSU in Fort Collins. The last time Utah played there, they won 27-3. The game wasn't even as close as the final score indicates, but that was a different Rams team (they finished 3-9 that year). This team has already matched that win total three games into the season.
So they won't be a pushover and we can't expect a victory just because Utah rocked them 49-16 a year ago.
In fact, this game reminds me so much of the 2005 contest where the Utes lost in a very close one. Which makes victory this weekend important because four years ago, Utah entered that game only a week after a really tough loss to a BCS opponent from the east (North Carolina).
After Colorado State is another road game. If Utah is lucky to get through the next two unscathed (I think they are), the Rebels will act as another fork in the road for the season. We all remember the last time they played down in Vegas and I'm sure the coaches won't soon forget. That's good. That means they'll be ready. A win here could potentially put their record at 5-1. That's important, because it means they're only a win away from bowl eligibility and any time you're that close to six wins (six games into the season), you're doing something right.
Beyond those other two games, the Utes also host Air Force, Wyoming and New Mexico. This is an important stretch because every one of these games are winnable and should be won by Utah. I say should not to suggest I expect victory, but to state how important it is for the Utes to not only win their home games, but beat the inferior teams.
If Utah is going to have a really good season, they can't lose one home game. That means no losses to Louisville, Air Force or any other team for that matter.
To show you how important this is, look at 2005. Had the Utes won out at home in '05, a similar rebuilding year, they finish with 8-regular season wins and maybe 9 if you count their bowl game. Instead, they lost to San Diego State and New Mexico, two not-so-good programs that year.
So if the Utes are going to have a shot at the conference championship, they'll need to win out at home, win those road games against mediocre-to-bad programs and if that happens, they'll be 8-1 entering their game against TCU. That would be good for a top-15 ranking, some serious momentum and a 5-0 conference mark.
But it's all for not, I believe, if they don't beat Louisville.
Here is why...
A loss here exposes Utah. Similar to how FSU exposed BYU last week. If they can't beat the Cardinals, I don't think Utah has much of a season this year. I won't throw in the flag just yet, but I believe, at best, the Utes win 7-games. Not horrible, but I'm not sure that's what any of us expected heading into the season.
This happens because two-straight losses, even heading into a bye-week, shatters an inexperienced team. Confidence at this level is important and the second it's lost, it takes a ton to gain it back. For Terrance Cain and the young Utah offense (and defense to an extent), it could ruin them down the road. Especially with their game against the Rams coming on the road. A loss there and the Utes are 2-3 heading into what turns out to be a must-win game against the Rebels.
Are we confident enough to enter a game in Las Vegas with the must-win mindset? I'm not so sure. A loss there and things will get out of control. 2-4 to start the season, during theoretically the easiest stretch of the schedule, has disaster written all over it.
Now it might seem like I'm being extreme here, but we witnessed something similar in 2005. Once they lost to TCU and then North Carolina and then Colorado State, things sort of snowballed from there and it was very difficult for Kyle Whittingham to right the ship. He did, but only before the season was nearly lost and if it weren't for Brett Ratliff playing a game of a lifetime against BYU, Whitt and the Utes are looking at a 5-6 season that year.
I don't expect the same type of growing pains this season, even if they do lose to Louisville. But a loss could have similar ramifications, especially if the Utes drop their game on the road against the Rams and struggle to recover.
Ultimately, Louisville might be the difference between pushing 10-wins and just pushing bowl eligibility.
Hopefully we don't even have to entertain the latter after Saturday.