2012 could go a long way toward establishing Utah in Pac-12 pecking order

LOS ANGELES, CA - SEPTEMBER 10: Ryan Lacy #26 of the Utah Utes celebrates his interception with Jason Whittingham #37 during the second quarter at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on September 10, 2011 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

Last season proved Utah had the fight to battle with a great deal of the Pac-12. 2012 could prove whether or not they have the talent.

This is an important season for the Utes. I don't want to say it's quite the crossroads it might turn out to be, but I also believe it's one they can't muck up like they did, at times, last year. They've got to win games and exert their power, especially in the Pac-12 South.

This isn't to say they need to win the conference, or even the division, but a losing conference record would prove troubling, even more so when you consider how weak the division still continues to be - or at least how uncertain it looks.

Arizona, Arizona State and UCLA all have new coaches and Colorado is still trying to build itself up into a respectable program. So, you've got to wonder if the Utes' second place prediction by those in the media is more by default or talent. It has to be the latter and not the former, because, as we saw last season, even a default division win (as they came close to winning) didn't quite feel as glorious at it maybe should have.

So, now comes the hard part - actually proving you can be a consistent contender in this conference. It's hard not to deny the Pac-12 is improving across the board. Washington is putting together a fantastic recruiting class, Washington State has already proven how serious they are about football, and USC, Oregon and Stanford don't appear to be going anywhere. This conference is going to take off , with or without Utah, and this upcoming season might be the one that establishes whether the Utes are worthy of taking off with 'em or if they're going to be stuck in the middle - a perennial okay team that rarely does more than just that.

Now I know fans are all over the place with their predictions of this season. Some are more optimistic, and because of that, more zealous than others, but I think we can all agree that this team should be better than last year's. Maybe not by much, but certainly good enough to not start conference play 0-4 and good enough to finish with a winning Pac-12 record.

If they do that, if they're 6-3 instead of 4-5, I think they'll be on the right path and laying down the foundation needed to succeed long term in the Pac-12. Anything more than that, anything better than that, and it's all just gravy, baby.

This season is going to be defined by the stretch of contests starting with Arizona State and ending at Washington. That's seven games, with four on the road and three at home. If Utah is going to have a successful season, a season where they, like I said, exert their power, it's going to come out of that stretch. No, that doesn't mean their final two games aren't important - but the conference season, the division championship, whether they have a winning or losing conference record, that's all going to probably be settled during those games.

The toughest, of course, is the USC contest. But I'm not even sure that's the most important. I say that because this is a game no one is really expecting Utah to win. They might be a potential upset threat, but to most in the media, this is a game the Trojans are probably going to win and therefore, if the Utes lose, it's not going to be a big deal - it's unlikely to radically change their season.

We can suffer a loss to USC and still do a helluva lot of good things this year.

But what about those other games? They're all winnable, and in some instances, Utah will be favored to win 'em. It's those games, really, that will prove where the Utes stand in the Pac-12. Last season, in three conference home games, Utah failed to exert their power and paid dearly for it. That can't happen this season. They have to take care of business at home and they have to win against weaker competition.

California at home? It's a potential loss - but it needs to be a win. Oregon State on the road? It's a potential loss - but it needs to be a win. Those games will have more impact, ultimately, than that USC game purely because I'm not sure Utah can salvage losses there like they can against the Trojans.

The good news here is that I am confident this team is ready to make that step. Last year, they were competitive in all but two Pac-12 games (it's hard to remember but Utah actually led Arizona State late in the third quarter) and should do the same again this season. With a healthy quarterback, more Pac-12 experience, a strong coaching staff and more depth, I don't see why they shouldn't be better than last year's Utes.

And that's why they need to get it done this year ... because they should get it done this year. No excuses.

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