Utah's success is always going to be tied to how they fare at home. It's important, at this level, to win in your stadium and had the Utes just managed to win one more home game in 2012, whether against USC or Arizona, they would have gone bowling. That was the margin between what we got and what we could have had and yet, Utah was only in that position because they were 1-5 on the road last season.
Five of their seven losses came away from Rice-Eccles Stadium.
That's the reason 2012 was so underwhelming - because, when you think about it, their success at home was at least reasonable. They defeated BYU, crushed Cal and Washington State and also played USC competitively. Their lone collapse at home came against the Wildcats and even today, I have a difficult time reconciling the loss. In fact, I view it now in similar fashion as the Colorado defeat from 2011 - absolutely inexcusable.
So, obviously, success at home is important. But had the Utes defeated Utah State in Logan and found just one more road victory, either against UCLA or Oregon State, the season is vastly different and probably considered fairly successful. Instead, though, they flopped on the road and it made it so they had to be near-perfect at home. Their one throwaway loss came against the Trojans, which we all conceded was very likely, even before the season began. Unfortunately, they also fell to Arizona and it was that Arizona loss that defined the 2012 season and has led to much of the doubt that's defining the 2013 preseason.
For this season to be successful, Utah needs to do better than 1-4 on the road. I guarantee you that type of record will almost assuredly cost 'em a bowl game and it will certainly force 'em to thread the needle nearly perfectly at home - against teams that could prove difficult.
Utah's best shot to win on the road comes against Washington State. Still, the Cougars will feel far tougher and infinitely better than Colorado last year and the Utes barely managed to leave Boulder with a win. The fact is, there isn't a sure-win away from Salt Lake and that's concerning because so much rides on Utah's ability to succeed on the road.
Now, that doesn't mean they have to finish with a winning record there, and I definitely don't anticipate such a turnaround, but even just two wins would be enough to adjust the dynamics so that a winning season is very possible. Oddly, those two likely victories are against teams named the Cougars - with another cat mascot, the Wildcats, their third most likely road victory. I guess you can call 2013 the Year of Beating the Cats for Utah.
If the Utes do manage to go 2-3 away from Salt Lake (lucky them, they have one fewer road game this season than last), and you assume they will defeat Weber State, then they just need three more home wins to finish at .500 - just three victories against Utah State, Oregon State, UCLA, Stanford, Arizona State, or Colorado. If you lay it out like that, it looks doable ... right? The addition of another road victory should all but guarantee the Utes a bowl bid.
Maybe this optimism is just because we're so close to the season and the excitement level is allowing me to buy it - but the point still stands: Utah needs to do better on the road. This season is going to succeed or fail with how they do away from home. That's pretty much what made 2011 successful, as the Utes went 4-2 away from Rice-Eccles and only 3-3 at Rice-Eccles, and will pretty much make this season successful.
Can Utah double their win total from last year on the road? What will their final road record be this season?