The one constant throughout this whole Jon Hays/Travis Wilson debate has been my wanting to give Hays a chance to play Utah into a bowl game. So far, that hasn't happened and it's possible it never does ... and at that point, I would fully endorse the idea of starting Wilson so that we can prepare for the future without really risking the present.
But Jon Hays has led Utah back from bad starts before and has done enough, earned enough, as the Utes' quarterback to be given the chance to do it again. I think this Saturday is a game that will tell us everything we need to know about the future of the season under Hays' leadership - we'll either win, and he will have earned every start during the second half of the season, or we will lose and the questions will once again mount.
I don't believe Hays' future as Utah's starter should be fully tied to the UCLA game, but he can certainly bolster it with a victory. If Utah has a better than 50/50 shot at playing in a bowl game this year, they'll need to split these next two road games. I concede Hays deserves the chance to do that and I hope, this time next week, we're discussing the possibility of sweeping this road trip. But I also realize if Utah comes back from Corvallis 0-2 and 2-5 on the season that it's unlikely, though still technically possible, a postseason is in the cards. If that's the scenario, if that's what we're facing a week from Saturday, then this situation becomes far more muddled and Hays' position less certain.
Still, we owe it to Hays to give him a chance to save this season and lead us closer to a bowl berth. So, though I hesitate to set in stone a specific threshold, I've got to believe that Hays needs at least a 1-1 record on this road swing to regain the confidence needed to lead this team to a tenth-straight bowl bid.
To be sure, Hays managed to salvage the season last year, but even that was aided by a 3-3 record out of conference and a huge road win over Pittsburgh. Take away that victory against the Panthers, and who knows how much the dynamics change for the season. I think we could all agree, at least mentally, coming back from a 2-5 start is much easier than a 3-4 - which the Utes eventually faced after their loss to Cal.
This year, though, with an already poor record, a 2-5 start would essentially mean that Utah would have to be near-perfect in their last five games ... play with a consistency we haven't really seen the last three seasons. That's a tall order for any quarterback, especially one as limited as Hays is right now.
It's a big reason I feel the mountain may be too big to climb for Hays if the Utes can't pick up a victory in these next two games. At that point, do you keep fighting for bowl eligibility with Hays, knowing the chances are slimmer than any of us would really like, or do you put Wilson out there and hope, maybe, he'll be able to grow into the role ... even if it means not getting the team to a bowl game?
Either way, Utah is looking at a potential situation unfolding that does not involve playing in a bowl. It sucks to even speculate about, especially this early into the season, but with every loss, the path to postseason play becomes thinner and thinner.
Of course, that's why these next two games are important. If Hays is the guy ... if he's the real best shot at getting this team to a bowl game, then he needs to show it these next two weeks. UCLA is beatable and Oregon State, without their quarterback, Sean Mannion, is as well. That doesn't mean we should expect victory, but we should at least expect the chance of victory and that's huge ... not just for the team, but Hays.
This is Hays' team right now. I've said as much since he stepped in against Utah State and believe it to this day. However, we also have to realize that Hays is not the future and because of that, because this season is teetering between something they can salvage and a season completely lost, we do have to concede that maybe, down the road, it's best to play for the future and not just spin our wheels with our current setup.
Now, this may sound like I'm already throwing Hays under the bus ... but I'm not. I like Hays and still hope he can do well in this offense that seems to have a spark coming out of the USC game. With that said, I'm also not oblivious to the fact that if Hays starts the remainder of the season, and Utah finishes on the bad side of .500, we'll have blown a great opportunity to not only get Wilson legitimate playing time ... starting time ... but we'll have also lost the chance to have Johnson coach, straight up, with a quarterback who, for all intents and purposes, is the future of our program.
Ultimately, though, I concede we play for the bowl bid and the best option to do that at the moment is Jon Hays. So, I fully back him as the starter and hope he does lead us to a victory this weekend and next.
High stakes, yes, but realistic stakes. I think we all concede this could be the season ... these next two games. A 2-5 start is just too big of a hole to expect this team to climb out of, especially with how inconsistent they've proven to be this season.
Hopefully we don't find out. Hopefully this team can continue its improvements and Hays does lead us to a bowl game.
He's got his chance ... now let's see what he can do.