One thing I've learned since Utah has joined the Pac-12 is just how difficult it is to remain consistent at this level. It's not like the Mountain West where consistency was built around beating a bunch of cupcakes and sometimes, maybe once every four years, producing a truly great season. When we were on the outside looking in, you know, from the perspective of being a non-BCS team, it looked easy - or at least it looked like it should be easy.
We were wrong in that assessment. Consistency is far easier in the Mountain West than the Pac-12 because you're looking at a schedule where you should win at least 75% of your games. In their final three seasons, the Utes did just that - winning 100% of their games in 2008 and nearly 77% in 2009 and 2010. Since, though, they've won 61% and 41% ... numbers that won't turn many heads.
So, I guess you have to kind of recalibrate what consistency means at this level. It's not just about winning 75% of your games anymore - a feat that today would be pretty damn impressive. Instead, it's the littler things that go beyond just beating the bottom of the conference. Let's be honest, there is a huge gap between UNLV and Washington State, which was evident last season when the Cougars, who had all of one Pac-12 victory, defeated the Rebels 35-27 in Las Vegas. That gap might ebb and flow season to season, but on the whole, the worst the Pac-12 has to offer is almost always better than the worst the Mountain West had to offer.
That means no more body bag games and the pathway to six wins will be infinitely harder than in years past. That's a considerably different landscape than what we were used to when, as I mentioned, Utah could realistically pencil in at least seven wins in the regular season.
Now we'll be lucky to win seven overall - including the bowl game.
Everything has changed because of this. Our outlook has been readjusted and instead of hoping for ten-win seasons, we're now realizing it's a bigger accomplishment just finishing above .500, especially if they can do that in conference play.
But even with those differences, the fact the Mountain West was riddled with lesser programs than the Pac-12 currently, on the whole, at least from the bigger picture, what Utah is looking to do in terms of consistency isn't much different than what we strove to do in the Mountain West - defeat the teams you're better than and challenge the rest of your schedule. Granted, that is a much smaller pool than in the MW and it showed last season - as I don't think Utah lost to one team that was worse than they were - but of course, that's only half the challenge. The other half is challenging the rest of your schedule successfully and Utah didn't do that in 2012. They lost pretty much every other game and it was no more evident, this lack of consistency, than against Arizona, at home, in a must-win game. I think the Wildcats were a good squad, but that's about the extent of their ability and a consistent Utes team would have won that game, especially with everything on the line.
They couldn't get it done, though, and that was the difference between a bowl game and what we got - a rather damaging, and disappointing, quick exit.
What I'm looking for this season is pretty much the type of play we expect from a Kyle Whittingham-coached team. I get they're not going to go undefeated or win the Pac-12 anytime soon, but it doesn't mean they should be allowed to slack off when it comes to the most important aspect of success in college football.
I've said it before, and I'll repeat it here right now - that success begins with out of conference play. Utah can't afford to lose to the Aggies again this year. If they do, close up shop because the season is pretty much over. Likewise, and this is something I thought last year, this year's rivalry game against BYU is pretty important for the Utes. Even if they beat USU, with how tough the conference slate becomes this season, a 2-1 split against instate competition might be their undoing. That's scary, especially when you consider the game is down in Provo this year (though, to be fair, Utah pulverized the Cougars on their last trip to Provo).
But it's also important Utah shore up its play against the programs more on their level. Here, Whittingham has struggled since the Utes made the leap to the Pac-12. Last season, it wasn't just losing to Arizona or Arizona State the way they did - but it was also failing to win at least one huge road game, even though they were afforded opportunities against UCLA, Oregon State and Washington. I understand all three of those teams were better than Utah - but it even goes back to 2011 against Washington, Arizona State and Cal. The list of good opponents Utah has defeated is woefully small since joining the Pac-12 and to be any threat to a winning season, especially with an improved conference schedule, they're going to have to pull some of these bigger games out. No, I'm not saying go beat Stanford or Oregon or even USC, but the reality remains - Utah owns zero wins over a Pac-12 team that has finished with a winning record these past two seasons.
That's really the root of the problem here and why, when you get down to it, a team like Washington earns infinitely more respect than the Utes - even though the Huskies have gone 14-12 and Utah 13-12 over the past two years. The difference is that Washington is not only 2-0 against Utah, but they also own wins over Stanford and Oregon State and that drives their image.
It's why, at the end of the day, some publications continually rank Steve Sarkisian over Kyle Whittingham. As I pointed out, Sark has a one-game edge over Whittingham since Utah joined the Pac-12 - but in relevance? It's night and day because, twice last season, Washington stepped up in huge games and upset two very good teams.
If Utah is going to be taken as a serious threat in the conference, it starts by beating those teams at least once every two seasons. I'm not asking for a consistent amount of upsets, but if we're going to be anything, they have to happen.
It goes right back to the point I was trying to make originally - there just isn't enough games in the Pac-12 where Utah can pad their win total. Those gimmies don't exist and it means there will be more losses and less easy opportunities for victory. A season's success is only tied to the Utes' ability to at least try to break even against the Pac-12 and that won't happen if they're losing every game against equal or greater competition - as last year's team proved.
This season, I want at least one solid conference win. I think the only game that even remotely fits this definition since Utah joined the Pac-12 was their win over UCLA in 2011 and even then, the Bruins were bad enough to fire their head coach.
The good news here is that there is ample opportunity for such victory. The first happens only three weeks into the season against Oregon State and I think we can all agree this game is going to define the way the season progresses. A victory there would be huge, especially if Utah can follow it up with a win over BYU a week later, and set up a huge showdown against division rival UCLA - yet another chance to grab an impressive victory.
It's those two games, really, that I think will dictate how things play out. At worst, the Utes need a split, because another 0-4 conference start would be too devastating, in my view, to climb back from and that shouldn't happen. If we're really expecting to be anything in this league, we should at least win one of those games at home. It's that simple. But again, it comes back down to consistency and in that regard, it will require them to change whatever has hurt their chances these past couple seasons against good Pac-12 teams.
You can add the Arizona schools to the list and that doesn't even include Stanford, USC and Oregon - three teams I'll readily concede probably should beat Utah this year.
Of course, this is just one part of the equation - it doesn't change the fact Utah still needs to succeed against the lesser teams. Losses there hurt because it becomes increasingly difficult to make 'em up during a tough conference schedule. I still maintain the USU loss was the most damaging, even if it wasn't a conference loss, because it was a game Utah very well should have won. But because they lost, they were forced to make up that defeat somewhere else and against better competition. They could never do it.
So, they'll need to win the games they probably should win - games that are at home against teams that are no better than Utah.
If they do both those two things, if they can beat Utah State, Weber State, BYU, Oregon State, UCLA, Arizona State and Colorado, this season will be very much the success we wanted last season to be - and to me, it is absolutely doable. I look at that schedule, and I can see Utah winning every one of those games - but I also can see them losing most those games.
So, again, it comes right back to consistency. For 2013 to be successful, Utah needs it or this season will, unfortunately, mirror last's. It's that simple.