Welcome to the show, folks. We're only a few days out from the start of the 2010 season and at this point, there really is no turning back. So you better buckle up and hold on tight.
The 2010 season is going to be memorable regardless of what Utah does on the football field. It's their final as a member of the Mountain West Conference. A conference they helped build in 1999 with schools they have associated with for a generation or more.
This will also mark the final season as a non-BCS member. Which is fitting that their first game of that season begins against the team that established Utah's spot as the most influential non-BCS team in college football history.
It was the only meeting between Utah and the Pittsburgh Panthers that has proven so historic. It happened in the 2005 Fiesta Bowl and the Utes' win all but validated the program and the non-BCS alike. Prior to that victory, no non-automatic qualifying team could claim a BCS bowl berth. Since that game, every year but once (2005) a non-BCS team has played in the Bowl Championship Series.
On Thursday, Utah hopes that Pitt will once again validate their season. It's a season of many questions and there are not going to be quick answers. The defense lost a great deal of talent from last year's 10-3 team and the offense, though potentially potent, is still being led by a sophomore who has only started five games.
Utah is far from being a sure thing.
It's what lies beyond those concerns, though, that has Ute fans excited. The potential of this team is what drives our excitement because we know the best of expectations is a path of great elation. In a way, that justifies our concerns. If the end result is perfection or near-perfection, it makes every doubt and fear worth it.
Pitt is a chance to validate those expectations because they are an elite team. They enter this game fifteenth nationally and you've got to go all the way back to 2007 and the UCLA Bruins to find a non-conference opponent who came to Salt Lake that highly ranked.
Has there ever been a harder and bigger home opener in program history? Not in my lifetime.
The Panthers are a legitimate national championship contender. Hyperbole aside, they have expectations like Ute fans and those expectations, in some circles, call for national championship contention. They're also, rightfully, predicted by many to win the Big East. Utah is opening the season, at home, against a team that is favored by most to win their BCS conference. When was the last time that happened?
When was the last time the Utes were actually favored in a game like that?
This Thursday, the season begins and everything that comes after it will never be forgotten. I expect there to be some trying times. I expect we will have setbacks and difficulties that no one wants to face. But it doesn't mean I expect anything less than greatness from Utah football. I am, after all, a fan. As a fan, it is my responsibility to expect the best, even if at times I realize the worst.
To be sure, I understand what faces this Utah football team. I have said it before and I will repeat it again right now: Pitt is an elite team. They are very good and they are capable of walking into Salt Lake City and leaving with a victory.
I also mentioned Utah is no sure thing. That's absolutely correct. Likewise, this game is not a sure thing. There is no sure thing when you're facing a program that has built itself up into a legitimate top-25 team. That's exactly what Dave Wannstedt has done at Pittsburgh and though it's taken time, he finally has them where they can be a force again.
This is supposed to be their true coming out party. For them, they look at Utah as the team that had established their greatness against their program. Now it's their time. A win two thousand or so miles away from home against one of the most successful western programs over the last decade would go a long way toward doing just that.
Granted, there are no remaining players from that 2004 team. The coaches have long gone and Wannstedt has made this his team. But don't be fooled by the passing of time. Those players just have to look to that game to see what they're facing.
They know this is going to be a battle. They know they're not favored and maybe they're feeling a bit disrespected because, overall, not many seem inclined to pick this as a week one upset. They're expected to walk into Salt Lake, play hard and lose.
But each one of those players does not have that mindset. They never have and they never will. This is a team built of players who want to win more than anything. When it's the first game of the season, the passion and investment for that dream of winning is higher than at any point in a twelve game season.
All the spring and summer for both teams culminates in this moment. All that work and all that pain - the injuries and the fighting, the restless nights and the exhaustion is for this day.
Pitt will be ready.
They'll be ready because they have one of the best running backs in the nation in Dion Lewis. He's chomping at the bit to get at Utah's defense - which returns little from last year.
They'll be ready because few teams pressure the quarterback as good as the Panthers. Especially when they're going up against a kid who's only started five games.
They'll be ready because they've spent the last five seasons being called underachievers. This is the time to change that and they know it.
Pitt is ready for a fight and Utah damn well better be ready too, or they will start the season 0-1. This is not the game where you can just put it on cruise control and win. That goes for both teams. They're both going to have to brawl for each down and each score.
It's been a long wait, but football is finally here.
Utah wins if...The defensive line controls Lewis as good as possible. Quarterback Tino Sunseri is making his first start and though it isn't a guarantee of success, you'd much rather force the guy making his first start to beat you than the experienced workhorse who has a history of beating everyone. It's also important Jordan Wynn play extremely well. I don't expect perfection from his game, but his mistakes can't cripple Utah's chances or they are in trouble.
Pittsburgh wins if...The Utes struggle containing Lewis and Sunseri does enough to not harm their chances. I expect the Panthers to test Utah's secondary a bit, especially with how much was lost from last year, so it's important they don't let Sunseri find his comfort zone early. However, their offense is still going to be tailored around the running game and if Lewis breaks through the line and into that inexperienced secondary, things definitely tilt Pitt's way.
What will happen...Utah contains the run as well as anyone could expect and forces Sunseri into some difficult positions. They get good pressure on the young quarterback and a few mistakes early in the game set the Utes up for some key scores. Yet it'll be a tight game throughout and I anticipate if Utah is leading into the fourth, it's by the narrowest of margins. It's in the fourth, though, where they pull away and win 35-24.
What are your predictions?