This post is sponsored by NCAA Football 2011 and is part of a week-long series that will further introduce Utah football.
Utah enters its final season as a non-BCS program in a few months. It's a historical leap that hasn't happened since the BCS formed in 1998 (Cincinnati, Louisville and South Florida were all replacement members when they departed for the Big East) and because of this transition, I expect this year to be of the most emotional and hardest seasons in recent Utah history.
So many rivalries have been built over the decades among Mountain West schools. Beyond just BYU and Utah, the Utes have a history with the Wyoming Cowboys, Colorado St. Rams and New Mexico Lobos. These teams have been duking it out in some instances since the old Skyline Conference. But come November, Utah will officially play its final conference game with some very familiar conference foes.
What awaits is unknown. We expect the Utes to do well in the newly expanded Pac-12 - but that's all speculation.
What we do know is that no team in the Mountain West has achieved what the Utes did over the span of the last eleven seasons. We're the only team in Mountain West history to play in two BCS bowls. We're the only team in Mountain West history to finish second in the nation. We're the only team in Mountain West history to go undefeated since the conference formed (and hell, we did that twice). Sure, there were some down years (2000, 2002). But overall, as Phil Steele put it, Utah has been the Mountain West team of the decade.
I suspect Boise State or Texas Christian will claim that title in the next decade. But for the entirety of the conference, Utah took the Mountain West to heights no one ever could expect. Especially from a program that ended its play in the WAC only managing one conference championship in a thirty year span.
That will be the storyline of the year - one of the programs that helped establish the Rocky Mountain Conference, then the Western Athletic Conference and eventually the Mountain West Conference, is now leaving for their delux apartment in the sky.
Everyone will be gunning for Utah. Go check out rival forums. Even though the Utes did nothing wrong, there is a new hatred for the program. Probably because they don't see us as one of them anymore.
We're now BCS and each game will be treated as a contest between the non-BCS and the BCS. So I expect every team will get up to play Utah. Though we're used to that. They did it in 2005 after we bulldozed our way through the conference and they did it again last year. The fact the Utes have been the most successful program in the conference nationally means that generally, you'll get their best game. I don't want to make it sound like I'm conceited - but it does make sense. Beating Utah carries a lot more weight nationally than beating Wyoming.
Of course, I expect TCU to find a similar target on their back. But in the end, it won't be nearly as large because, when it's over, they're still one of them and we're not. When November rolls around and the final seconds tick off the clock at Rice-Eccles Stadium against BYU (hopefully a win), we're officially done with the Mountain West and they're officially done with us. Nothing we do, even if we make the BCS or national championship game, will count for the conference. It now all rolls over to the Pac-10.
Because of this, I know we're in for a tough season. But I also think the Utes want to go out on a high note. They're not just content with getting their invite to the Pac-10. This isn't about mailing it in and then coming back in 2011 to establish the program as something more.
Kyle Whittingham will have his team ready.
I'm just not sure it'll be enough for a great final season. Maybe a good one. Maybe even a near-great one. But if it's going to be great, the season will come down to the following games:
@ Notre Dame
Three of those four games will be played at Rice-Eccles Stadium. Utah should be favored in two of those four (Pitt and BYU). That leaves TCU and Notre Dame as the biggest games of the season. Pitt is up there because it could set the tone for the Utes' season from the start - but I'm not sure it's as big as TCU and Notre Dame.
You could also add Air Force.
Ideally, the Utes win 'em all. That probably isn't going to happen, though. So, as I've said a few times this spring and summer, I think 11-1 or 10-2 are realistic predictions.
What do you think?