With new conference comes uncharted territory for Utes

SAN DIEGO - NOVEMBER 20: Running back Matt Asiata #4 and center Zane Taylor #77 of the Utah Utes celebrate Asiata's one yard touchdown run against the San Diego State Aztecs in the fourth quarter at Qualcomm Stadium on November 20 2010 in San Diego California. Utah won 38-34. (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)

Utah successfully built itself into a Mountain West Conference power over the last decade and because of that, they were able to win a lot of games. Many of those wins came against lower-level conference foes who struggled sniffing .500 on a yearly basis. 

Each year, regardless of how good the overall conference seemed, there were a few gimmie-games littered throughout the schedule. That helped pad the Utes' winning percentage, especially in down years when the program didn't quite have the firepower to contend with the best team(s) in the conference.

That's not a knock on Utah, of course - but reality. It's easier to win ten games in a season when you're facing six opponents with losing records (as Utah did last season). 

So obviously we shouldn't expect that in the Pac-12, right? 

Well...

In 2010, Utah's opponents finished with an overall record of 81-84 - which isn't entirely all that bad. In fact, in 2008, that record was 78-73 - not including FCS Weber State. 

Overall, Utah's 2008 opponents averaged 6.5 wins compared to 6.2 for last season.

The difference, of course, is that Utah won all their games in 2008 and lost three in 2010. Ignoring those losses and the overall record of teams the Utes beat last season drops to 48-78. Dreadful, if you think about it. Those ten teams only averaged 4.8 wins. A big drop from the 6.2 overall. 

Much of that was dragged down by San Jose State, New Mexico and UNLV, who had four wins...overall. 

But how does that compare with this year's schedule? Well, not counting Montana State, Utah's opponents' overall 2010 record was 64-67 -  an average of 5.3 wins for each team. 

Actually worse than last year's record by almost a game. 

Of course, head-to-head isn't exactly accurate, since it only blindly looks at overall record and not the difficulty of each opponent. Losing six games against Wisconsin, SC, Oregon, Oregon State, Stanford and Washington looks a lot better than losing six games against Air Force, Florida State, Nevada, Utah State and, sigh, Utah. 

The first team was Arizona State and the second, I'm sure you've guessed by now, was BYU. 

So let's look at it a bit deeper and go beyond just record by using Jeff Sagarin's 2010 ratings

Utah played two teams that finished in his top-ten (TCU and Boise State) last year. Notre Dame was 19th, Pittsburgh 32nd, San Diego State 34th, Air Force was 37th, BYU 45th, Iowa State 65th, Wyoming 108, CSU 130, UNLV 131, San Jose State 161 and New Mexico 170. 

Obviously the strength there is weighed down by how awful those 1 and 2-win teams were. Overall, the average ranking for Utah's opponents last season was 72nd. That would be like if Utah faced Georgia Southern thirteen times (or something like that). 

Now what about this year? Clearly I can't compare 2011 numbers to 2010 because there has yet to be a 2011 season - but using last year's numbers and Utah's schedule breaks down like this: SC at 22nd, Arizona State at 23rd, Washington at 28th, Oregon State at 29th, Arizona at 30th, Pitt at 32nd, Cal at 33rd, BYU at 45th, UCLA at 62, Colorado at 68 and Washington State at 79.

The first thing that should jump out at you is just how good the bottom-half of the schedule will be compared to last year. Utah will not face a team this season that finished ranked 100 or worse in Sagarin's ratings. The closest is Washington State and they're still ranked ahead of five teams Utah played last year - nearly half the entire schedule.

On the flipside, though, the Utes avoid legitimate national championship contenders. Last year, Utah played two extremely good (great, even) teams in TCU and Boise State. There is not an opponent that, at least right now, looks nearly as potent as either of those two teams. 

But even that can't balance out the awful stretch seen between Pitt and TCU. 2011's numbers are much improved over 2010 - as their average opponents' ranking is 41 overall. 

Even so, there were some good wins last season. The ratings for Pittsburgh, Air Force and San Diego State aren't dramatically different than Arizona State, Washington, Oregon State, Arizona and Cal.

Granted, last year's results don't mean much when you consider teams evolve from year to year, but it does give us a starting point when it comes to figuring out what to expect this season. 

Utah's schedule will be difficult, to be sure, but not because there is a great team on it. There isn't. It'll be difficult because there are more Pittsburghs and Air Forces than New Mexicos and UNLVs. 

Yet I can't help but think that's a bit balanced out by not having any TCUs or Boise States on this year's schedule.

So it comes down to whether or not Utah can keep an even keel during the entire season. Injuries aside, there is not a team on this year's schedule that the Utes can't beat. They're lucky in that regard. It doesn't mean I'm expecting 13-0 - but I definitely expect more wins than losses.

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