We knew heading into this season there was a possibility the Utes could struggle. 2010 was less than spectacular and while they returned more experience at key positions, there were still questions surrounding the ability of Utah to contend right out of the gate with the second-tier Pac-12 schools.
After three games, I think it's clear we're not there yet.
But why? Why has Utah, which started 2-1 with a solid showing against SC and a dominant win over BYU, struggled so badly in two conference home games that mirror each other frighteningly well?
Let me start by saying I do not believe it's the Pac-12 grind. That is an easy excuse, but not applicable here because the Utes have only played three conference games, two at home, and only these past couple came paired. The other, against SC, was after a warm up win over Montana State and even then, Washington was off a win against a non-BCS school and a bye-week.
It's not the Pac-12 grind doing this. Utah has faced three BCS teams in a regular season before, sometimes in back-to-back games, and got by just fine in the past.
I believe this is a bit less deep than that.
Yes, it's clear the Utes, across the board, just don't have the athletes like Washington and Arizona State, and that's not a quick fix. It's going to take a few recruiting classes to get to their level, especially in terms of depth.
That's not correctable this season. You just have to make do with what you've got and right now, Utah is starting a team that's led by a junior college quarterback and has spent the past few years recruiting talent to win the Mountain West Conference.
It is what it is.
So, we've got to focus on what is correctable and those problems that need to be fixed are, in my view anyway, more tied to the losses these past two weeks than anything dealing with talent.
The past two games, the Utes have played very undisciplined and it's showed with the many turnovers and inexcusable penalties that kill drives, allow opposing drives to continue and just become an overall nuisance. Those are absolutely, positively correctable. Lack of talent is not a reason for stupid penalties. The turnovers we witnessed Saturday had little to do with playing a Pac-12 schedule with Mountain West athletes and everything to do with a team playing very emotionally and it's something that needs to be fixed or it will only continue to kill the season.
This is Kyle Whittingham's challenge. I would wager, the past two weeks, Utah has been very schematically sound on both sides of the ball. But that means a lick if you're emotionally and mentally weak and right now, that's exactly how the Utes have played the past two games.
Now I don't know the direct result of turnovers and maybe it's something that is a bit deeper than this. But then again, it could be just tentative players trying to prove through big plays they're deserving of Pac-12 affiliation. It's entirely possible this team feels it has to prove it belongs and it's causing them to overexert themselves - recklessly going for extra yards and then getting stripped because of it or forcing the ball into coverage trying to make the play.
I don't know if the answer is that easy, but I've got to think if the Utes correct their penalty problem and get a handle on these turnovers, they'll win some games, even if Jordan Wynn has to miss the entire season.
What I've seen the past two weeks is a team very close to being pretty good. This isn't last year's team that just rolled over from the start and failed to compete at any point. They played tough in the first half against Washington and held the lead against ASU midway through the third quarter. Obviously that means little when the end result is still a loss, but those losses were a direct result of turnovers and, in some instances, extremely damaging penalties. Unlike talent or depth, this can be fixed this season.
That's the major thing Whittingham and his staff has to figure out and the fate of the season really hinges on it. If they're going to have a respectable season, a bowl berth and some Pac-12 victories, they will need to hold on to the ball and cut out the ridiculous penalties.
It really is the only thing that can be fixed this season. The talent is here to stay and I've been pretty content with the play calling this year. So it does come down to fielding fundamentally sound football teams because, though not always, they can make up for the discrepancy in talent.
Utah is in badly need of fundamentals or this season will be lost and we'll be spending the holidays home for the first time in nine years.