After their bye week, and two weeks after playing the Cougars, the Utes will jump back into conference play with a pivotal contest against the UCLA Bruins. If everything has gone according to plan (at least according to Block U readers), Utah will enter this game 4-0. If that's the case, there will be some national attention for what could be a fairly important divisional contest.
For the Bruins, they enter 2013 favorites to once again win the division. As odd as it is to type, considering this is a program that has gone through some recent struggles (up until last year, anyway), it's been UCLA who has represented the South in the Pac-12 championship game the last two seasons. It's very possible they make a third consecutive championship game this year - especially when there doesn't appear to be a clear cut favorite in the Pac-12 South.
So, we're dealing with a very evolved program that is starting to really figure out how to win. That wasn't necessarily the case throughout the Karl Dorrell-Rick Neuheisel era and because of it, not much was expected of the Bruins entering 2012. In fact, the consensus only had them third in the division, hardly contending, and they pretty much exceeded every expectation - winning the Pac-12 South outright unlike in 2011 when they backed their way into it due to USC sanctions. I'm not going to proclaim that the Bruins are the new Trojans, even with USC slipping, but they could prove a consistent and difficult force in the coming years for a team like Utah.
Even so, it's important to remember that though the Utes were shredded in the box score, or at least it felt like it, they had opportunity after opportunity to win last year's game. The final score does prove how close this game was - the Utes only managed to lose by seven. Granted, they were down by 14 late and a comeback would have taken an improbable set of circumstances - but they had the chance for much of the second half to do something and only waited until the final four minutes to make their move - leaving little time for anything when they got the ball back with less than 10 seconds to go.
What we remember from this game is Travis Wilson's first-ever career start. It would usher in a somewhat rocky freshman year, but the hope this season is that the kinks Wilson suffered through in 2012 will have been worked out by 2013 - especially by October, 2013. Even though Wilson wasn't perfect in his first start, throwing one interception and not even accounting for Utah's lone offensive touchdown (Jon Hays came in for Wilson when his helmet was knocked off to finish a successful drive with a one-yard touchdown pass), he still had 220 yards and showed some signs of what we would come to expect from him throughout the remainder of the season. Unfortunately, much like that UCLA game, Wilson's success varied throughout the remainder of the year.
For Utah to actually have a legitimate shot in this one, you've got to think the offense needs to do better. UCLA returns only five defensive starters - this off a team that finished 58th nationally in scoring defense and 76th in total defense. With how bad the Bruins were at times on defense, there really was no excuse for the Utes to score only seven offensive points (Ryan Lacy scored a touchdown on a fumble to tie the game up at 7). But we can excuse that on two fronts 1) it was Wilson's first start and 2) it happened in a hostile road environment. The Rose Bowl, even when it's not entirely packed (attendance was a respectable 66,000 that day) is an intimidating stadium and, as we saw in 2006, not exactly easy to win in - especially when you're going through quarterback problems.
This game is going to be in Salt Lake, where Utah is 2-0 against the Bruins the past six seasons and have won both those games by an average of 31 points. Their last victory, of course, came in 2011 when the Pac-12 South was still on the line. UCLA had upset Arizona State in the Rose Bowl and looked poised to lock up the division with a victory over Utah. The Utes, however, controlled much of the game, which took place in a snowy Rice-Eccles Stadium, and ultimately recorded their best conference win to date.
No better way of changing that than by beating UCLA this season and potentially damaging their South title hopes. I'm not going to be delusional and suggest this game will play into any type of contending for Utah in the South, because I suspect strongly it won't, but we can still play spoiler and on the path to six wins, that's a pretty important role - especially at home. Utah needs to win at home again. They need to take advantage of their environment and come away with wins in games like these.
Because this game is played on a Thursday (which I fully anticipate will lead to a very lively crowd), UCLA will also have a bye week before meeting Utah. But their scheduling leading up to this game is far less challenging, with a road contest against Nebraska their only theoretical potential loss. It's possible, if things break their way successfully, the Bruins enter this game ranked and I think we all know how that can fuel emotion and environment.
Right now, the media's view is that the Bruins are a potential top-25 team (Lindy and Phil Steele have 'em both ranked). If they start the season 3-0, they'll roll into Salt Lake certainly ranked - potentially high. While we all concede the third game of the year against Oregon State will dictate the season - this one could define its potential greatness. I'm never the one to put the cart ahead the horse (okay, that's a lie), but if Utah can wrap up a win here, and start the season 5-0, things could get real fast.
I don't necessarily look at this game as a must-win in the same vein as maybe Oregon State is, but it's an important one because it's at home and against a division rival. More importantly, it's a winnable game. As good as the Bruins might prove to be - they're not a title contending team (at least right now, I readily concede something could change between now and November). Looking at this game from the perspective of July, I think the possibility of winning is there and every time that possibility presents itself, it's important teams like Utah take advantage of it. They didn't last year and because they didn't, the season ended in a failure. I don't know if 2013 will be a failure with a loss here, but I do know it could move closer to respectable with a win ... and that's all that really matters.