Last season, even though the Utes were often inconsistent, they still managed a pretty respectable 4-2 record away from Salt Lake City - which was actually better than their 3-3 record at home. This year, though, Utah is winless on the road and it's a big reason they're still trying to claw their way back to bowl eligibility.
With some momentum out of their last two blowout wins, can the Utes finally break through on the road?
That question is going to help answer whether they have a legitimate shot at a bowl bid or whether we're going to fade out after a quick, and successful, two games. The problem is that Washington is not an easy team to play on the road. Yes, they're playing in an entirely different stadium than they're used to, but it's still a road game in a tough environment against a team that has shown some success this season - especially at home.
They're 4-1 in games at CenturyLink Field, including upsets of #8 Stanford and #7 Oregon State. That doesn't seem to bode well for a team that is 0-4 on the road and has only been semi-competitive in most those games. It's why I'm so surprised the Utes are actually the favorites heading into this one because, frankly, I still haven't seen enough from this team on the road to believe they can win.
Oh sure, they won impressively at home against one team that's about to fire their head coach and another that might not win another game, but it's an entirely different proposition to ask this team to go into a loud and rowdy stadium and win a game against a pretty talented squad. It's doable, but it just seems to me this game has a lot written all over it and some of it isn't good.
My hope is that they've really turned the corner and can come out explosive and fired up like the past two weeks. But I also worry that they're not there yet and because they're not there yet, because this team might still have some improvements to make this season, they're about to walk into a buzz saw similar to last year.
Don't get me wrong, I'd love to win this one and get that much closer to a bowl bid, but I'm not about to lull myself into a false sense of security because this team has produced back-to-back stellar results. If I've learned anything about inexperienced teams, it's that you should never expect anything from 'em because they're prone to doing the exact opposite.
I just don't want to be let down and it's why, when Travis Wilson became the starter all the way back against UCLA, I realized it was important to just take this season for what it was - the potential to develop into something nice but also a possible throw away year as we set course for the future.
Obviously, I would rather this team make a bowl game than not and I certainly hope they do make that bowl game, but I'm not going to build my expectations so high that now I expect them to go on the road, against a decent Pac-12 team, and win ... no matter how questionable Washington has looked this year.
What I'm saying is that I don't necessarily trust Vegas.
I want them to be right, I hope they're right, and I'm not saying they're not, but I'm also a Utah fan and I know, more than ever, the second your expectations rise, the second you start believing, this team has a habit of dashin' 'em pretty quickly. You had the TCU game in '10, the Washington game in '11 and the Arizona State game this year. So, please, don't judge my cautiousness.
I just want to be surprised now and not disappointed. I believe this team is getting better and I suspect they'll play a pretty good game Saturday, but I'm not about to pretend I have a clue what will happen up in Seattle. They could win. They might win decisively. But I also could see them coming back home with a pretty ugly loss and one that leaves us asking whether this team really has improved or if those two wins at home were a mirage of sorts.
The best line of thinking, I guess, is one that is the simplest - they'll either win or they won't. If they do, that's great and I can start believing that maybe this team has finally turned that corner. If they lose, if they play like they did against Oregon State and UCLA, which I think we can all agree were two competitive games, then maybe it's time we realize this team is still a work in progress and we're asking too much for them to go on the road and knock off a squad whose sole loss at home was to USC by ten points.
And that's how I enter this Saturday. I'm completely stoked for the chance to see progress, and I definitely hope to see it, but I'm also not set in the idea that everything rides on this one game. I think, because we've climbed a bit back from the brink lately, this game is meaningful, but not necessarily essential. That might sound a bit contradictory to my point of view over the last week, especially with so few contests left to gain six wins, but I've come to the realization that we made our bed and we'll probably have to lie in it. What I mean is that those early losses are why we're in this position now to where we need to win either on the road against Washington or at home against Arizona (assuming, which we shouldn't do, that they beat Colorado) to gain a bowl berth. We've put ourselves in a tough spot and now we can't expect this team to just automatically fix everything in only a few short weeks ... and do so nearly flawlessly.
I hope Saturday night is a good night and that the Utes can almost certainly lock up another bowl berth with a victory. I think it would be another huge step for this program to go on the road and win in the Pac-12. But I'm not delusional (at least not always) and I see this as what is - a tough game in an environment where the Utes have not proven they're capable this season. That might change, this might all be moot and they rise up and claim that first road win - but expecting it? That's an entirely different thing altogether.