All Utah had to do last season was defeat Arizona at home and they were almost certainly a lock for a tenth-straight bowl bid.
The Utes would lose 34-24 after holding a seven-point lead entering the fourth quarter.
Of all the losses in the awful 2012 season, Arizona is one that still upsets me. It's one that I have a hard time excusing because, while the Wildcats were improved over their 2011 team, it's a game, all things considered, the Utes should have won - especially at home. That Arizona game, to me, feels an awful lot like the Colorado one from a year earlier - a sorta must-win and the team just completely fell apart at home.
I'll be honest, the total face-plant they've taken in the home finales the past two seasons concerns me. Regardless of coordinators or quarterback instability, none of that is justification for what happened against Colorado in 2011 and Arizona in 2012. These were important games to either decide a division or a bowl berth and in both contests, the Utes blew it. Granted, Arizona was a much better opponent than Colorado, and Utah in 2012 was a far weaker team than 2011, but the point stands - when you're vying for bowl eligibility, you can't lose, at home, to a team that finished one game better than you in the conference standings. Yes, had Utah not blown their lead at home against the Wildcats and, assuming they don't crap the bed a week later against Colorado again, it's the Utes who finish 4th in the South and not Arizona. That's how close they were to finishing with a semi-respectable record and, with everything on the line, they couldn't get it done.
So, as you can tell, I'm a bit angry and it's a big reason why I'd like to get some payback on the Wildcats this season. Sure, maybe I don't have as much disdain for 'em as their instate rivals, but that game hurt more than the blowout loss to the Sun Devils. Plus, this is going to be a contest between two teams who are probably jockeying, as it was last year, for the same general spot in the Pac-12 South. Utah's best chance of improving on its predicted placement in the South (fifth) is by moving up a spot to fourth, and who is the general consensus at that fourth spot? Yup. Arizona.
But this is going to be a challenging game. Even though Utah managed to knock off the Wildcats on the road two years ago (a fairly impressive win, all things considered), this is a team that is much more improved under Rich Rodriguez, and I anticipate will continue that improvement into 2013. Last season, they went 6-2 in Tucson, which is a pretty respectable record, and that included a defeat of then ninth ranked USC. This is going to be a hard roadie, especially a week after what very well could be a tough loss to Stanford at home.
Of the Utes' five road games this season, Arizona is one of the easiest and I think that speaks for how difficult the schedule really is, because, overall, this is a game most in the national media probably think the Wildcats win, maybe even easily, after last year's results. Granted, this isn't last year's Arizona team, and they certainly have some questions of their own, but on the whole, has Utah made the adjustments to win a game like this? I don't know.
What I do know is that this game could again prove the difference between a winning season and nothin'. This schedule doesn't allow for many mistakes, and the opportunities, generally against teams of Arizona's caliber, are few - so, you've got to seize 'em to make this season successful. So, while Utah might be able to afford a loss on the road against the Wildcats, a win would improve their position markedly. You know, you look at the schedule and you see far more paths to .500 involving a win at Arizona than scenarios that chalk this game up as a loss.
As I said earlier, though, the Wildcats are facing questions of their own. Quarterback Matt Scott is gone, and that means much of the success of this offense is going to rely on who they replace him with. B.J. Denker appears to the leading candidate, as he was Scott's backup last year, however, Jesse Scroggins, a USC transfer, is another possibility.
And yet, even with those questions, most in the media still expect Arizona to finish ahead of Utah.
But you can't blame 'em. After last year's results, and the disappointing loss to the Wildcats at home, if I was an outside observer, I wouldn't expect the Utes to turn it around enough to win on the road ... especially in what is historically a tough place to play.
Can Utah do it? Yeah. I think so. This is a winnable game. Will they do it, though? That's an entirely different question altogether and the answer just might decide whether this season is a success or not.