The one good thing about being underestimated is that much is not expected from you. So, just doing enough could be regarded as a pretty decent season.
A couple years ago, the idea of a 6-6 season, with a berth to the New Mexico Bowl, would widely be considered a failure for this program and yet, on the cusp of the 2013 season, I'd wager most Utah fans would take that exact same scenario from this year's Utes. It's a realization our confidence in this team has taken a hit - but it's also accepting this year's team faces a brutal schedule. 6-6 in 2013 would be very similar to 8 or 9 wins in the old Mountain West.
So, because the outlook is muddled for Utah, there is great potential to surprise and exceed what most in the media feels is likely - probably another 5-7 season and 5th place finish in the Pac-12 South. In that regard, most outside observers would tell you not to buy Utah. There is just too much risk associated with the brand to actually invest, especially after last season's down year.
On paper, it makes sense. The Utes had an easier schedule in 2012 and couldn't muster six wins. Why would they then be able to do it in 2013 ... especially with the turnover on defense? Utah is the definition of high risk.
But I look at it a bit differently. While I believe they're high risk, to a degree, they're more built to make the leap then, say, Colorado, Washington State and California - three teams that, probably, are predicted to be worse than the Utes this season.
If I'm looking at the Utes, I see a determined team that doesn't have a history of losing. You have to go all the way back to the 1980s and early 90s to find the last time Utah finished with back-to-back losing seasons. They've sustained success, pretty much, since Ron McBride's second season and while there have been down years (2000, 2002, 2012), it's never proven a trend - the Utes have always bounced back. Granted, what they did in the WAC and the Mountain West is irrelevant, to some degree, to what they're facing in the Pac-12. But then again, we're also better built, more talented and better equipped than those 90s teams that, while okay, sometimes underperformed.
I'm saying buy Utah because I think there is the potential to improve, and since last year's team literally missed a bowl game because of a missed field goal (albeit, a fairly long one), even the slightest progress could push them toward bowl eligibility.
Some numbers to chew on:
Utah lost two games last year by a touchdown (USU, UCLA) and lost two more by ten points (USC, Arizona). That's competitive. Since they came in only a game under .500, had they just managed won win in any of those four contests, and we're probably far more bullish on this year's team.
Utah ranked number one in forcing fumbles in 2012. Unfortunately, they struggled recovering a great deal of them. While I don't necessarily buy into good/bad luck, if it exists, the Utes certainly got the bad end of it last season.
Maybe they're due?
Of course, for everything to improve, I think we all agree the offense has to step up. Dennis Erickson wants to push the tempo, which I think could open the door for a more aggressive and successful offense. Utah has to improve on first downs (Utah ranked 105th last year), converting on third downs (they ranked 106th last year) and pace - the Utes had the 27th slowest pace in 2012.
The good news, I guess, is that it can't get much worse on offense. Last year's team took the gold for ineptness across the board - from play calling to execution. Even still, they managed to come within a hair of the postseason. Every fan should look at how close Utah was last season, with all their faults, and find some solace in the fact it really can't get much worse in that regard. If Erickson is as good as advertised, the offense should not only see a fairly noticeable improvement, they should also win more games. Even with their tough schedule.
So, I'm bullish on Utah. Not quite at the level as I have been in the past, and I definitely foresee a scenario where the offense doesn't improve at the level we need it to, and the defense struggles, equaling out to a disappointing season, but I'm optimistic. I think last year's team was closer than we realize, and with a solid offensive line, as well as the potential growth of Travis Wilson, the leap could be made this season.
I think Utah is on the upswing. The transition to the Pac-12 hurt, and we definitely took a few steps back these past two seasons, but I believe 2013 will prove to be the year the Utes take a giant step forward.