The safest approach to these next few games shouldn't be too much different than our approach to the last few - Utah can certainly play their way into a bowl bid, but at the moment, it's still an uphill battle.
I don't want to get too carried away with one win and start proclaiming that we're back. There is still ample room for this team to regress and struggle again ... even this week against a poor Washington State team.
So, I'm cautious about Saturday. I believe Utah can win, as I think we've all felt since the Cougars proved less than stellar out of the gate, but this team still has one too many flaws for me to walk into Rice-Eccles this weekend expecting a victory. Which is why I was surprised to see Utah a 12 point favorite in Vegas for this game. I know the Cougars aren't having the season many expected in Pullman, but they've been in a great deal of their losses, including last Saturday's slugfest against Stanford.
I don't know if Utah will win by twelve, in fact, I really don't care what their margin is now, but I would like to see them build on their victory against Cal. As we enter the most crucial point of the schedule, it's important this team prove it's maturing and positioning itself for a strong finish. But even more importantly, prove they can live up to their talent level. I think we all agree this team is better than their record and should be on the good side of .500. The fact they aren't is moot right now ... it is what it is. However, that can change. It should change. There is still time to turn this around, keep moving in the right direction and make that push for a bowl berth.
This team not only needs to make a bowl game ... it should make a bowl game.
And Saturday is yet another step in that direction. I've said before how important it is to step up against beatable foes and I believe it. These are the games you really need to win because they're the most winnable. Washington State, at 2-6, is far worse off this season than last year when Utah went up to their house and beat 'em in a snow storm.
The most surprising thing about the Cougars has been their anemic offense. We kind of expected it from Utah, because they've not really been known for their offenses, but Mike Leach is an offensive genius and right now, Washington State ranks 9th in the conference in overall offensive yards per game (to be fair, Utah is dead last) and 103rd in scoring offense nationally. Yes, the Cougars are near the bottom of the country in points per game ... even Utah, somehow, is outperforming them (by nearly 4 more points!).
Defensively, they're not much better. Their scoring defense is a pitiful 75th nationally, as their opponents average nearly 30 points per game. Their total defense is worse, ranking 91st in the country. That's good news for Travis Wilson, who's still transitioning into his starting role. The fact this game is at home, and coming against such a questionable defense, I'm actually optimistic about his performance.
What this game means for the season is pretty clear. Utah needs to win it. If they don't, there is no realistic path to a bowl bid without some stunning upsets. Fortunately, for their sake, Washington State is not a good team. I'm sure the Cougar faithful hate hearing it, but the proof of the pudding is in the eating. This is, after all, the team that gave Colorado its only win of the season thus far (well, I guess we can't really comment on that, considering last year and all) and is one loss away from yet another losing season.
While Leach has definitely brought new buzz to the program, and I believe he can get them turned around, his name alone isn't helping them win. They're still suspect in a lot of areas and that's not going to change between now and the time they take the field Saturday afternoon.
Even so, we've been here before. I briefly mentioned the Colorado game above and I think that should always be a constant reminder of what can happen when you potentially overlook an opponent. Even though the Cougars don't look like much of a threat right now, they are certainly capable of winning and that should scare the fans, players and coaches into taking this game seriously. You can't take anything for granted in the Pac-12 because if you do, you'll be burned ... just as we were a year ago.
And because Utah has struggled just as much as Washington State this season, I'm thinking their fans are looking at this game as their best chance at victory down the stretch. Such is the life for a losing program and, sadly, right now, that's how much of the conference looks at the Utes.
So, this is really a game between two teams still trying to find an identity. But I think Utah is a lot closer than Washington State and I hope that is proven this weekend.