It's game week.
Those are three words I've wanted to type for months now and it feels pretty good to finally say it.
After all the talk, projections, speculation, hype, camp, injuries, coaching changes and even a conference change, Utah is ready to begin the 2011 season.
It's going to be an experience unlike anything we've ever seen before at Utah and though the ride could prove rocky at times, I'm sure it's going to be worth it.
That ride begins this Thursday against Montana State, an opponent that doesn't even belong to the same division as the Utes.
Game over, right?
Not so fast.
If history has taught us anything (well except that George Washington crossed the Delaware River), it's that you can't take a FCS school for granted. Just ask Ole Miss and Virginia Tech - two BCS teams last year that lost, at home, to programs from the Football Championship Subdivision. The Hokies' loss wasn't even to a good FCS team - as James Madison finished the year 6-5. The Rebels could never rebound after their defeat and finished the year with only four wins.
It can happen here. It has happened here. You have to go all the way back to 1993, of course, but it has happened. In that season, the Utes, fresh off the school's first bowl appearance in a generation, lost, at home, to the Idaho Vandals. At the time, the Vandals, coached by former Utah Stater John L. Smith, were Division 1-AA. They were actually good, too, making the D 1-AA semifinals that year. The Utes weren't bad, either. They upset BYU down in Provo (their first win there in over 20 years) and took USC to the wire in the Freedom Bowl.
So even a good Utah football team found a way to lose to a lesser foe.
Of course, those were in the early years of the Ron McBride era and the Utes certainly have come along way.
This year should be different. We're well beyond that type of performance.
But like that '93 squad, this year's Utah team will be playing a very good FCS school. Montana State made the playoffs last year and open this season ranked 6th in the FCS Coaches' Poll.
They're led by quarterback DeNarius McGhee, a sophomore who completed 62.7% of his passes last season and threw for 3,163 yards. He had a fantastic freshman campaign, leading the Bobcats to 9 wins and a playoff appearance against North Dakota State. In that game, McGhee and Montana State actually held a 17-14 lead heading into the fourth quarter, however, a dislocated shoulder sidelined the quarterback in the final quarter and the Bobcats bowed out ungracefully in a 42-17 laugher.
It was a disappointing end to fourth year head coach Rob Ash's best season.
Fortunately, McGhee and Montana State will get a second chance. This year is widely expected to be Ash's best team since he arrived Bozeman in 2007, though there are some questions.
The defensive line lost three starters, including Dan Ogden, the All-Big Sky tackle from a year ago. He'll be replaced by Zach Minter, a junior.
Montana State also must find a replacement for James Andrews, the senior cornerback who was ruled academically ineligible for 2011. Adding to the uncertainty of the secondary were the losses of safeties Jordan Carney and Michael Rider, who graduated after last season.
Offensively, beyond McGhee, Cody Kirk is listed as the starting running back heading into the season, though he saw limited action last year. He replaces Orenzo Davis, who was the leading rusher in 2010, after he was ruled academically ineligible heading into this season.
Even with all the questions surrounding Montana State, they still enter '11 as one of the more talented teams at the FCS level. How that transfers to a game against Utah, or even compares to a middle of the pack FBS team, is unclear. It should be pointed out that, at the start of last season, the Bobcats nearly knocked off Washington State in Pullman, losing that game by a mere point.
In 2006, they ruined Dan Hawkins' debut at Colorado by beating the Buffaloes 19-10 in Boulder. So this team certainly has the ability to not only play with the Big Boys, but also beat the Big Boys. Of course, the Cougars finished 2-10 last year, as did Colorado in 2006 - so they're not very comparable examples to the Utes.
For Utah, they enter this contest with just as many questions, if not more, than the Bobcats. Both programs lost their quarterback for the final game due to a shoulder injury and both programs have questions in the secondary and in the backfield, but of course, expectations are far greater for the Utes heading into this one.
They can't lose. They can't even barely win. They've got to dominate this game. Anything less and there would be more questions than any of us would like heading into one of the biggest games of the season.
Montana State, though, well they don't need to win this game. Their season won't be lost in defeat. While I doubt any player that lines up for the Bobcats this Thursday is expecting a loss, there is a high probability of that happening.
Because of this, there is little to lose and a whole lot to gain from their point of view. Even keeping the game competitive midway through the fourth quarter would be a huge opportunity for Montana State. And, based on their history alone, this does appear to be a team that can keep things competitive. If that's the case, anything then can happen and with an uncertain offense, questions surrounding the offensive line and a quarterback that spent all winter, spring and most of summer rehabbing his arm, a perfect storm could result in, as much as we want to dismiss the idea, a potential ugly win and worse, an even uglier loss.
This isn't a prediction, mind you, but a potential outcome if Utah takes this team too lightly. They're too good at what they do for the Utes to just walk through this contest with their eyes squarely set on the Trojans.
That game can wait. Because this week, it's Montana State and no one else.
Utah wins if...They play up to their potential and don't overlook the Bobcats. No disrespect intended for Montana State, but this is a game Utah has no business losing.
Montana State wins if...The Utes have an ugly, turnover plagued offensive performance that stems from a lack of consistency on the offensive line and a quarterback whose injury continues to be an issue.
What should happen...This game will not be pretty at times. I expect some difficulty as the Utes transition to a new offense. Of course, that should last no more than a quarter (if that) and once Utah gets rolling, they never look back. I am not going to dismiss Montana State, with their recent history only a fool would do so, so this is more about my confidence in Utah getting it done. I think the Utes control this game and win rather decisively 48-10.
What are your predictions?