The last time I convinced myself Utah stood zero chance in any game was probably all the way back when they lined up against Texas A&M in 2003. Ever since, especially in the wake of 2004 and 2008, I've entered every single game, at least according to my sometimes faulty memory, confident the Utes stood some chance of victory. Sure, the potential of that victory ranged from possible, but maybe not likely (Sugar Bowl) to absolute certainty (say, against a FCS team) - and yet, it never mattered, I always believed in Utah.
Against Oregon, on the road, with this team, though? It's hard for me to muster up even a percent of hope that the Utes will go into Eugene and beat a team that has only lost seven games in the past four years - matching Utah's total in just 2012.
This is a game where I just don't feel, even on their best day, they'll be able to pull out a victory. Oregon is too good, too successful and the Utes have too many questions for me to buy into their ability to pull off potentially the biggest upset in program history. And let's be honest, a win against the Ducks would be just that - especially on the road.
With that said, I realize much can happen between now and November 16th when the two meet. As unlikely as it seems, Oregon could collapse under first-year head coach Mark Helfrich, and, who knows, maybe the Utes can take advantage of such struggle. It's also possible this year's Utah team is much better than advertised and because of that, the perceived gap, which, at this moment, feels about as large as the distance between Salt Lake City and Eugene, might not be there - or might not be as large as we think it is. I mean, when these two teams last met, at the beginning of the Chip Kelly era, you could make the case there was no gap between either programs ... or at least a very minimal one.
Utah, riding the nation's longest win streak, walked into Eugene and played the Ducks about as tough as any team would that season. or at least, tough enough to make it a game. The Utes kept it close throughout the entire contest, and, at the very end, even had a chance to tie it up and send it into overtime. This, of course, coming during a rebuilding year for Utah and a season where Oregon would win the Pac-12 and play Ohio State in the Rose Bowl.
While the loss didn't look good at the time, as the Ducks had struggled out of the gate in Kelly's first season, it became the definition of an tolerable defeat the longer the season progressed, and I think we all felt comfortable, or at least I did, with how well Utah held their own in a hostile environment against a team that wouldn't lose at home the rest of the season.
The thing is, 2009 was a long time ago. When those two teams met, Utah was the national story, not the Ducks, and that's hard to believe today - especially with how dominant Oregon has looked since. Really, going back to that game, both programs have taken completely different paths and while no surprise (the Ducks are certainly a team built to succeed with all the money Phil Knight has poured into the program), from our perspective, it's difficult to accept the Utes' slide.
So much has happened since that Oregon loss for Utah and, let's be honest, outside the invitation to the Pac-12, and then the Sun Bowl, much, if not nearly all of it, has been bad. Not so for the Ducks. It really is a tale of two programs and while I don't believe it ties back to that Oregon game, that game at least provides a contrast in the direction both teams took. The Ducks went up ... and we went down.
Which means I'm not expecting much out of this game. Oregon could slip, and Utah might be vastly improved, and then we'll revisit the potential come November, but from the perspective of August, it isn't nearly as kind.
But that's okay. No one believes this is a game Utah needs to win for 2013 to be a success. It'd be nice, and certainly memorable, but it is what it is and most fans have kind of accepted that. Whatever.
The problem, I guess, is that you never want to reach the level as a program where one game feels unwinnable. This isn't even necessarily about Oregon as much as it is Utah because, even a few years ago, I think we would have had faith in at least the potential of beating the Ducks. That potential, though, feels extremely limited now solely because of the Utes' recent slump. A 5-7 team is seriously unlikely to go on the road and knock off a national champion-caliber program.
If Utah can turn into something respectable, though, the dynamics of this game change. I might not expect a win, but I wont enter completely hopeless. And like I said originally, I haven't had that feeling entering a Utah football game since Texas A&M in 2003. Even the Las Vegas Bowl against Boise State felt at least somewhat winnable to me prior to everything falling apart - even if, I knew, deep down, it was as unlikely as beating Oregon in Eugene.
But that's the life of a subpar team. It's why losing sucks and the cycle becomes that much harder to break the more defeats you suffer through.
It's also why I hope, come November, we're good enough to offer up at least a glimpse of an upset.