I think we all believe 2009 was a fairly okay rebuilding campaign by the Utes. They won ten games, finished ranked and won their ninth consecutive bowl game against an elite Pac-10 team. By all accounts, it wasn't a bad season.
Of course, it could have been a lot better. The biggest complaint about 2009 was, up until the Poinsettia Bowl, the lack of big wins. In every important game, Utah stumbled. That defined much of the season and kept a good season from being great.
If you look at it, the Utes are only a few plays away from ending last year 12-1. Two of their three losses came by a combined margin of only ten points. It generally doesn't get much closer than that.
Now the constant concern heading into 2009 wasn't necessarily the talent of each opponent, rather where the game was being played. We knew it would be hard to defeat the Ducks. But going to Eugene, a place where road teams seldom win, made it that much more difficult. The same challenging prospects faced the Utes in their games against TCU and BYU.
Their three hardest games of the season came on the road and it isn't a coincidence their three losses also happened in those three games.
Now let's play a little revisionist history here. Let's say Utah's schedule flips and they get Oregon, TCU and BYU at home. Do you think they lose three games?
I don't. I think they probably lose to the Frogs, but by a much smaller margin, and beat both the Ducks and Cougars. Each of those two wins would've been extremely close because that's just the type of season Utah produced - but I am confident they would have finished the season at no worse than 11-2.
That might not seem like a dramatic increase from the 10-3 we saw in reality. But it means a lot in terms of the rivalry against BYU, the final ranking and total consistency. Eleven wins looks more impressive than ten. It always has and always will.
Finally, imagine if Utah went 12-1 with their lone loss coming by ten or so points to a very good TCU team in Salt Lake City. They own wins over the Pac-10 champion Oregon Ducks and their bitter rival.
How much does that change the perception heading into 2010? It's very likely a 12-1 Utah team is either on the cusp of, or has cracked, the top-ten. In this beautiful, unreal Utopian world, the Utes have produced two extremely great seasons in a row.
That makes the hype for 2010 a tad bigger, no? If that had happened, Utah is probably more talked up as a contender to TCU's current thrown than they are right now. Maybe they aren't the favorites to make the BCS or win the Mountain West - but how different would we feel about this year's team?
This is my point (yeah, this post is going somewhere, folks). You put 2009's hardest games in Salt Lake City and they are in better position to win those tough games.
Enter 2010. This season, Utah has its three toughest games at Rice-Eccles Stadium. Oregon from a year ago is very comparable to Pitt and TCU and BYU aren't much different than they were last year.
Knowing that the difference between 10-3 and 12-1 (maybe, though unlikely, 13-0) is a favorable home schedule, shouldn't we feel pretty good about the team's current position?
It's almost universally agreed upon this year's team is better than last year's. They might have a bit more questions on defense, but the potential of the offense really does make up for it, right?
Sure, I'm not saying everything is golden. It's possible even if we had played Oregon and BYU at home last year, the team finishes 10-3. But it seems less likely. Less likely because the Utes have established themselves as a very good home team (they own the longest home win streak in the conference at seventeen).
In my mind, the home slate is what will make this a very good season. I'm not expecting a 13-0 campaign. But I think 11-2 or 12-1 is very possible because of the way the schedule breaks down for Utah.
If that happens, then the buzz entering 2011 should be off the charts. Like it could have been prior to this season had Utah won two more games than they actually did.