If I made a list of games Utah fans really wanted to win, I'm guessing Stanford would top it - or at least come in at second. Like as we thought with USC last yearbe, the Cardinal could enter this contest as a legitimate number one team and the prospects for such a game, something that has never happened in Salt Lake, is absolutely thrilling.
But as we also found out with the Trojans last year, hype isn't necessarily reality and it's possible, though with their schedule, unlikely, they enter the Utah game with a loss or two. Even still, does it matter whether Stanford is first or tenth? It's not like Utah is going to have a better chance of defeating them solely because of their ranking.
And really, isn't that last point the only thing that matters? Can Utah beat Stanford?
I'm going to go with no ... with a but. I don't think it's likely the Utes will beat the Cardinal in Salt Lake City. However, this is the Pac-12 and upsets happen. A lot. Just ask last year's Stanford team, as they went on the road and fell to a ho-hum Washington team. That killed their shot at the national championship, even though they held victories over USC and Oregon. So, in this conference, anything can happen, especially in your own stadium. In that regard, Utah certainly does have a chance to win this game and even if it's a slim chance, it's at least something and isn't that why we're all looking forward to this game - the possibility of turning that chance into something better?
Hopefully at this point in the season, the Utes have a winning record and they don't need to beat Stanford. Instead, it's a game they would like to win, maybe can win, but don't need to win in order to salvage their season. Against USC last year, even though it didn't necessarily feel it at the time, you get the sense in hindsight that Utah probably needed to win that game to save their season and it didn't happen. In fact, you could wager the coaches gave up on the season after that loss to the Trojans because they then turned around and started Travis Wilson, a true freshman, a week later against UCLA. To me, that move signaled they weren't necessarily playing for 2012 and instead, focusing on the future ... all the while hoping Wilson would surprise and turn things around. It didn't happen, and eventually, Utah finished with a losing season.
That's why the first five games are so important. They have to win three, and maybe even four, to have a chance at a respectable finish. If they enter that Stanford game with three losses, say to BYU, Oregon State and UCLA (don't even get me started if they lose to the Aggies too), then this game is meaningless - but for all the wrong reasons. A win is so improbable that now, like last season, the Utes would be on the cusp of a losing season before late-October rolled around. Four losses with Arizona, USC, Arizona State and Oregon on the schedule probably equals another losing season.
So, I don't know if Utah can win this game, but the mindset shouldn't even necessarily be about whether they can win it and rather whether they put themselves in the position where they need to win it. Any scenario, outside playing for perfection, that requires a victory over Stanford is not one that will bode well for the Utes. That only happens if their backs are against the wall to the point where they have to fight back to relevancy and respectability again. I don't like our chances if that starts with a game, a potential must-win, against Stanford.
I know this sounds like I'm underselling Utah's ability in this game, and hey, maybe I am. But I also look at it from the perspective of what we're dealing with. The Utes have yet to defeat one Pac-12 team the past two years that's finished with an overall winning record. We've talked about how that needs to change, but isn't it also a bit much to expect that to change against Stanford? Probably. I think we need to be more reasonable and look for that progress against Oregon State and maybe even UCLA, before we start discussing the Stanford game. That's not to say they can't win, or won't win, but it would be foolish of us to expect, or anticipate, a win over the Cardinal. This is a team that many believe could contend for the national championship, and unlike USC, who last year collapsed, they appear to have both the talent and discipline necessary to actually follow through with the hype.
Maybe Utah can act as a derailer - a team that steps up and ruins perfection. Lord knows we'd love to be spoiler and, sadly, that's the role we've been relegated to because of our position in the conference. I don't think you'll find many fans in Palo Alto too concerned about this game. Do you blame 'em?
Then again, if the Utes open the season on a tear and somehow win their first five, Stanford will take notice and this game will actually turn into what we all expected from last year's USC game. But how likely is that?
Can Utah beat Stanford? If they're improved, I think they have a shot. But I don't believe last year's team could have, even at home, and that means it's likely this year's team fails to make the improvements necessary to give 'em the chance we all want. Still, I think the Utes can give 'em a game and that's really how upsets are sprung. They just need to keep pace with the Cardinal and maybe, if at all possible, make their move to pull off the victory. They couldn't do it at all in any of their games last year. But if they improve, who's to say that won't happen this season?