We've finally reached game week.
In only a few days, after months of injury reports and speculation, the Utes will take the field for the first time in 2012 and begin a new chapter in the ever growing, ever evolving book that is Utah football. How's it going to go?
We might not know by the time the Utes' game wraps up against Northern Colorado, who, like Montana State last year, hails from the FCS - a division that isn't supposed to put up much fight in games like these - but this game could give us a strong indication, either way, of what direction this season might be going.
In last year's opening 27-10 win over the Bobcats, a great deal of fans left disappointed because the team looked flat at times and while we dismissed those concerns for a variety of reasons, in the end, it proved a bit prophetic - Utah's offense was impotent for much of the year and, even though he didn't make it half the season, Jordan Wynn's throws lacked considerable firepower.
That could all be traced back to that Montana State game. The performance wasn't bad, of course, but it hardly boosted Utah's confidence heading into the biggest game of the 2011 season. It left fans constantly debating whether this team had the guns necessary to compete in the Pac-12. That debate would continue well through October before it was finally established that, yes, because of John White IV, the Utes had just enough on the offensive end to compete.
We don't want a similar situation this year. I don't want to leave Rice-Eccles Stadium disappointed with the offensive performance and questioning everything from the play calling to Wynn's health - which is exactly what most of us did that Thursday night.
Wynn's throwing motion a year ago was not good and this became clearer a week later against USC. The play calling was also uninspired, but much of that was disregarded because of circumstance ... Norm Chow didn't want to show his hand just days before the Utes were expected to line up against the Trojans. It all made sense. That contest was too important for Chow to showcase his entire offense in a game against Montana State. I mean, no disrespect intended for the Bobcats, but all Utah had to do was run White up the middle on every play and they probably still would have won by a couple touchdowns.
Of course, in hindsight, as the USC game developed, two things became clear: one was that the vanilla offense we saw against Montana State was not some masterful strategic plan implemented by Chow - it was an offense tailored around the Utes' weakness and two, Wynn's weakness became more apparent with every throw. His arm was not 100% and while he was a gamer and did his best, his best was sloppy and each pass was met with a cringing facial motion from fans because of how weak they really were.
That's not to say the offense was putrid in that USC game, because I think it did an exceptional job all things considered, but it was not very good and only aided by a defense that caused three turnovers. Take those turnovers away and this game isn't coming down to a field goal in the waning seconds.
Even though the Utes put up a spirited challenge, that game validated every concern we had coming out of the Montana State game. So, while we didn't know exactly how the season would play out, we at least, in retrospect, could see the troubling clouds on the horizon.
Now, I don't know if we'll be lucky (or not so, I guess) to glean enough from Thursday's Northern Colorado game and it's entirely possible there is rust and that rust leads to sloppiness and doubt that quickly vanishes a week later against USU. But what I do know is that this game should indicate what type of offense Brian Johnson plans to run and whether or not Wynn's arm is really capable of strongly lobbing deep balls again.
I know that's what we're all going to be watching this week, especially after the way last year's season started. We want evidence this offense can produce at a high rate, something that rarely happened in 2011. We want evidence Wynn is officially 100% and that this offensive line is ready to protect its quarterback. We want evidence there is some hope of something special from this year's Utes.
That's all you can really hope to take away from games like these. Northern Colorado is not a good opponent and it's not just because they're from the FCS. Even by FCS standards they're bad. They're coming off a winless season last year and have only managed eight wins in the past six years. Even compared to Montana State, who was a true contender at their level, the Bears are not a good team.
So, where does that leave Utah? Well, it leaves them in the difficult position of trying to manage expectations. When you're facing an opponent you not only should beat, but dominate, what outcome is really acceptable? We saw last year that a 17-point victory wasn't satisfactory ... so, what about this year? Do we expect Utah to win by 10, 20, 30 ... 40 ... 50?
It's a tough question to answer and why margins might not be the most important detail with this game. Utah could win 42-17 and look sloppy doing it. Ultimately, we want a performance where the team doesn't just slog through a contest.
What we know about Northern Colorado is that they're led by Seth Lobato, a junior quarterback who, last year, threw for 2,448 yards and 17 touchdowns. In 2011, their offense averaged just a shade under 19 points per game, signaling just how much this program has struggled recently. They do bring back eight starters from that offense, but only return five defensive starters from last year's 0-11 team.
They're coached by Earnest Collins Jr., who's in his second season there. Prior to accepting the job in December, 2010, he was the head coach of Alcorn State for two years, where he recorded an 8-12 record.
Northern Colorado was once a Division II powerhouse and proved a launching pad for Joe Glenn, who coached the Bears to two national championships in the 1990s. However, since their move up to the FCS in 2007, the team has failed to recapture its past glory and, since Glenn left for Montana in 1999 as the most successful coach in program history, they've gone through three coaches. The last time they finished with a winning season was in 2003, when Glenn's successor, Kay Dalton, went 9-2.
So, we're not dealing with a historically rich FCS program here that has, in the past, upended FBS opponents. This is a staggeringly bad team, who probably is a bit overwhelmed as a member of the Big Sky. In no world should Northern Colorado give Utah trouble, let alone win.
It shouldn't happen and you can point to all the times a FBS team lost to a FCS team as proof to not overlook this team, and I seriously hope the coaches have invested time and energy into game-planning for the Bears, but in the end, all things considered, nothing in recent memory could ever compare to Utah losing this game.
This is a team that is playing a division lower than Utah with a team that is probably two divisions lower. They're not Montana State and they're not Appalachian State. They're a struggling program that has, at least recently, not been able to sniff their past success and I don't see that changing this Thursday.
To put their futility in context, the Bears lost last year to Colorado State 33-14. The Rams finished 2011 only 3-9 and fired Steve Fairchild for it. If a 3-9 Mountain West Conference team can easily defeat Northern Colorado, so should Utah - by an even wider margin.
No excuses ... no dismissing - just reality.
Utah needs to win this going away. Jordan Wynn needs to tear up their secondary. John White needs to abuse their defensive line and Brian Johnson needs to have some fun.
Let's kick off the 2012 season with some fireworks, boys.
Utah wins if...They show up.
Northern Colorado wins if...Concocting an outline for a Bears win would probably force the universe to collapse on itself.
What should happen...Utah eases into its offense...Wynn looks good...the line holds...the defense steps up and Utah runs away with it 49-10.
What's your prediction?