It's not hard to see why this upcoming season is going to be unlike any other. Utah is going to see not only an uptick in competition, but really a far more competitive mindset on the opposite sideline.
That's not to say coaches in the Mountain West didn't want to win, they did, but I think most those programs understood their limitations. Fans in Wyoming aren't gunning for an undefeated season. Just getting to seven or eight wins on a consistent basis would be considered a successful run for the Cowboys.
It's a bit different in the Pac-12. Certainly there are programs whose history dictates scaled back expectations - but on a whole, the goal is much greater and that type of drive changes the dynamics of each conference game.
Of course, no program is going to tolerate losing seasons. That's not the point of this post. But I believe coaches in the Mountain West can get away with a bit more than their Pac-12 counterparts overall. There are exceptions, obviously, like Washington State - who still haven't fired their head coach after he's gone 5-32 in three seasons - but it's limited to the very bottom of the conference.
In the Mountain West, Steve Fairchild can go 7-6 his first season and then 3-9 the last two seasons and still probably not hit the hot seat until after this season. Certainly he could get the ax at the end of the year, but I think that would take pretty much a winless season in Fort Collins.
That type of dynamic alters the overall context of a game and subsequently a season.
With more equalness in this conference, each game becomes less assurable. The playing field is more leveled and it takes a bit more skill, and yes, even luck, to come out victorious.
In the Mountain West, that was a rarity most of the time. Yes, there were games that were closer than they should have been (New Mexico, '08) and games Utah lost they had no business losing (UNLV, '07) - but on the whole, at least half the conference slate was filled with teams the Utes could easily overpower and, at least the last six or so seasons, that's exactly what they've done.
They didn't need to try anything cute or bold to win the game. Most of the time they just let their talent on the field dictate the flow of the game and, through sheer skill, wore the opposition down in the third and fourth quarters.
Now against programs like BYU, TCU and even Air Force, when they were equally matched, the games often came down to one or two plays - possibly a bold play call that opened things up. Sometimes, though, it was the lack of creativity by the offensive coaches that maybe kept a game closer than it should have been.
There are two examples that illustrate this point and both, coincidentally enough, are losses to the BYU Cougars.
The first happened in 2006. Utah entered the rivalry game as big underdogs to the Cougars and rightfully so, as BYU had already locked up the Mountain West Conference title and the Utes were ambling through a pretty ho-hum season.
Early in the game, the Cougars looked every bit the favorite as they opened up a 14-0 lead in the first quarter.
At that point, the game was on the brink of turning into a blowout. Then the turning point. Facing a 4th down, the Utes set up for a 24-yard field goal and ran a fake. They got the first down and then eventually scored to pull within 7.
The game completely changed from that point on and Utah was able to claw their way back into it and even held the lead for part of the second half (and final minute before...well, I won't get into that due to painful memories...).
Sure, it was a loss (a painful one at that), but that call was genius. Utah couldn't afford three points, not when momentum was clearly on BYU's side. And maybe it was the most predictable gutsy call in college football history - but it changed the entire course of that game.
The other example is from the following rivalry game, when Utah went down to Provo and lost to BYU by seven, after, like in '06, holding a lead very late in the game.
Much of the displeasure with that performance, compared to a year earlier, completely fell on the coaches' lack of creativity offensively. The team ran a predictable and boring offense and didn't do much of anything to utilize Brian Johnson or the running game. In fact, there was a sequence early in the game after the Utes intercepted a Max Hall pass deep in Cougar territory where they completely fell apart and gave the ball back on an interception.
Nothing was gained from receiving the ball at BYU's 16. Not a touchdown, not even a field goal.
The game would plod on and neither team could do much on the offensive end, though the Cougars would eventually find the end zone late in the game to seal the win.
One of the biggest knocks against former offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig was his often conservative play calling. There were definitely moments where the playbook was opened up and the team actually played very boldly (I'm thinking the 2009 Sugar Bowl), but overall, it seemed there were a lot more games like BYU in 2007 than even BYU in 2006.
My point in all of this is that with games against more competitive teams, sometimes it takes imagination and boldness to take it to the next level. Are our coaches ready for that? Or are they going to approach these next few seasons with a more conservative mindset because they don't want to run the risk of overstretching?
It's a tough question to answer. But I look at the three most successful Pac-10 teams of the last 10 years and I see one common link - SC, Oregon and Stanford have been more daring on offense than conservative. The Ducks especially had no problems opening their playbook throughout the last couple of seasons and shaking things up.
That mindset has done them well and has easily made them the most feared team in the conference.
Will Utah emulate that or are they going to turn themselves into an Arizona or Cal clone? And let me be clear here, I am not knocking either program. Both have had some impressive victories over the last few seasons, however, neither program has risen to the top, at least consistently, of the Pac-10.
Arizona, which has been known more for its defense under Mike Stoops, appears to have a ceiling of 8-wins and Cal, though coached by an offensive guy, seems a bit more tentative now than they did maybe at the beginning of the Jeff Tedford era.
What both these programs have in common is that they're good - but not great. They'll win seven or eight games, maybe upset a team here or there, but rarely do more than that.
Which I guess is kind of ironic, because the mindset calls for much more than that, as I said earlier. I'm sure Cal fans are happy with the job Tedford has done overall - but the last four seasons? Probably not nearly as content as they were with the first four.
Arizona fans like Mike Stoops and the passion and intensity he's brought to their program, but you're only going to tolerate 7-wins for so long before you want more.
So what path will the Utes choose?
Like I said, it's a tough question to answer. Certainly Kyle Whittingham is more conservative in nature than a guy like Chip Kelly - most defensive-minded coaches are. But it often takes a bit of boldness and swagger to make that leap to the next level.
Utah in the Sugar Bowl was not conservative. They didn't play that game conservative at all. They ran an up-tempo, no-huddle offense that put Alabama on their back feet. You didn't see much of that the last two seasons. The Utes weren't excruciatingly conservative and there were glimpses of balls to the wall offensive play calling (Iowa State) - but then there were other games, like against Air Force, TCU and Notre Dame, where the team was more boring than watching C-SPAN.
Ultimately, both Whittingham and Norm Chow will make the final call. Chow has been coaching against Pac-10 defenses for almost a decade now and he knows what works and what doesn't. Hopefully he'll know when to be creative and when to pull back.
Because even Chip Kelly understands you can't go bold all the time. But it doesn't hurt to do it every so often.