Expectations should always be taken with a grain of salt. I'm guessing, at this point last year, no one expected a 5-7 season that ended dangerously close to 4-8 ... or 3-9. We learned that expectations are pretty much meaningless because each season is different. 2011 wasn't that much better of a season statistically than 2012. It was just that the Pac-12, or at least the Pac-12 South, wasn't as good then as it turned out to be last year. That change, with how unforeseen it appeared to be, was enough to drop Utah from a respectable 8-5 to 5-7. At the end of the day, '11 was only different on two fronts - Utah went undefeated in out of conference play and won an extra conference game. That's the extent of it.
Sure, that sounds like quite the difference, and, when you consider it cost 'em a winning season, it is. But it also shows how narrow winning is at this level. Had Utah connected on a field goal at the end of regulation against Utah State, and gone undefeated in their out of conference season, they would've certainly gone bowling and potentially finished 7-6. But because they missed the field goal, and couldn't make up for that defeat in conference play, the Utes struggled to a losing season.
That's essentially the difference. In '11, Utah somehow managed to go on the road and defeat Pitt. They couldn't do the same in a rivalry game against Utah State. Sure, the extra conference loss hurts, but that was more a product of an improved Pac-12 than anything else (UCLA, Arizona and Oregon State, three teams the Utes beat in 2011, were all vastly improved last season).
So, when we look at 2013, it's important to realize that, even though we don't want to necessarily admit it, Utah is at the beck and call of its other conference comrades - at least somewhat. We concede Oregon State might have to be a tad worse this season than last if the Utes are going to win at home - same with USC and Arizona State and UCLA.
If they're better, even if Utah is better too, the overall results may not reflect it. It's why, when people discuss Utah's schedule, they concede that even if the team is improved, they could still finish with a losing record due to the addition of Oregon and Stanford.
That's what makes expectations and predictions so frustrating in the Pac-12. Four years ago, when the Utes played in the Mountain West, you could comb over the schedule and pick seven games, at least, you knew Utah would win and then probably two they should win with the rest considered true toss-ups (TCU, BYU and an OOC game). Outside Weber State, there really isn't a guaranteed win anymore on the Utes' schedule - not Utah State anymore and not even Colorado ... a team Utah needed everything to beat last season (and lost to the season before).
Every game, outside that contest against the Wildcats, is a potential loss. Of course, they won't lose 'em all - that I'm sure of - but they could lose most of 'em ... or they could win most of 'em and that is where the season will ultimately be defined for the Utes.
The way I see it, for Utah to produce a solid season, they must go undefeated in out of conference play. We saw how devastating that loss to Utah State was last year and another loss, even if it's to the Cougars, could be equally tough for the Utes. There is just little room for error in conference play for the Utes to drop one to either the Aggies or Cougars - especially with the schedule toughening up considerably this season.
They also probably have to beat Oregon State. I don't envision a season ending with a bowl bid if they lose, at home, to the Beavers. It's an important game - especially if Utah turns around and loses to BYU a week later. This season only gets off the ground if, coming out of fourth week, the Utes have no worse than a 3-1 record ... and even that is pushing it.
That leaves me skeptical about the season. I still believe a .500 record or better is possible, but I'm certainly not going to expect it - no matter how good the team looked this spring. There is just so much unknown - both on our team and in the division - for me to feel confident about anything ... and yes, that even includes a losing season (though, I admit the potential of a losing season feels more likely than a winning one).
What sucks is that this is an odd feeling. I can't remember the last time I actively doubted Utah's chances for a winning season - at least, before the season started.
Still, I hold out hope because I know how erratic the Pac-12 can be (and is). I'll get into this later in the summer, but to sum it up - this is a tough conference to gauge. Some teams disappoint ... others surprise. Hopefully Utah does the latter this year because we definitely did the former in 2012.