For the last two years, the Utes have often been given the benefit of the doubt by the national media - with many speculating their position as Pac-12 South contenders. And though, in their first season, they managed to play their way into potentially winning the South, the reality is, during the past two seasons, Utah is 7-11 in Pac-12 play - matching their overall conference win total from their final season in the Mountain West.
Much of Utah's preseason buzz last year came from their strong finish in 2011. The Colorado loss aside, they still managed to win six of their final eight games after a near-disastrous 2-3 start, which also would eventually include an 0-4 start in conference play. With a supposed healthy Jordan Wynn, the return of running back John White IV and other offensive weapons, the Utes were picked by the media to finish 2nd in the Pac-12 South - the true potential challenger to USC's great season.
That never materialized. Part of that came from the Trojans collapsing in the second-half of their season, and the other part was Utah's inability to ever really get their season off the ground. Like in '11, there was an 0-4 conference start, but unlike the year prior, the Utes could not climb back to respectability and finished with the program's first losing season in a decade.
The sudden collapse took not just Utah fans, but many in the media, by surprise. Even without a healthy Wynn, the team's offense performed woefully and the defense, supposedly in easier transition, you know, being Kyle Whittingham's baby and all, and the fact it was returning Star Lotulelei, wasn't much better throughout stretches of the season. And now the media is not biting this year.
The preseason hype for these Utes is probably the lowest we've experienced since the 2003 season. It doesn't mean there aren't believers, of course, but don't be surprised if, come later this summer, Utah is picked to finish 5th in the Pac-12 South - or essentially only missing out on the bottom because of Colorado.
It's a stark contrast from last year, especially when you figure most college preview publications predicted the Utes to finish 2nd in the division. They would eventually finish 5th and came dangerously close to finishing last.
So, Utah is not likely to be batted around as any favorite to topple USC, or UCLA or whomever in the South. Most might even predict a losing campaign.
The fine folk over at the ESPN Pac-12 blog have been buying and selling programs all spring on their ability to win their division. Not surprising, both Kevin Gemmell and Ted Miller are saying sell (as do 79% of the readers) the Utes because, really, has Utah done anything these last two years that makes you believe they can win the South?
It might sound logical. Why would anyone buy Utah to win the Pac-12 South? Of course, then you realize every other team, minus Colorado, in the division, was a 'buy' from both Gemmell and Miller and you see how even more damning it really is - the division is pretty much as open as it was when USC was ineligible a couple seasons ago, and they don't think there is much chance at all Utah contends for it. Arizona, Arizona State, UCLA and USC, though, are all expected to do just that.
Not that I'm complaining. It isn't like we deserve any preseason praise. This team hasn't earned much of any praise since their Sun Bowl win, so, this isn't even to rail against the Big Bad ESPN - rather to point out how perception has changed.
Which, all things considered, could be a good thing. No one is expecting anything from Utah this upcoming season. I'm willing to bet most pundits will pencil them in for another losing season and that's fine because maybe what this team needs to do is fly a bit under the radar for a bit. Certainly being expected to do anything, which has been the case, really, the past four seasons since beating Alabama in the Sugar Bowl, hasn't amounted to much of anything. So, let's try out this new underdog role for a bit and see how it works out.
Maybe it'll work out for the better and we'll come in with an Us Against the World mentality.
We can only hope, because if Utah lives up to this year's media expectations, 2013 is going to be a replay of 2012.