It's never too early to talk football and even though Utah's season is less than a month in the books, I think it's the perfect time to look at what the expectations should be next season. So what are those expectations?
Well firstly, Utah returns the most talent on both sides of the ball since the epic 2004 season. For Whittingham, who has hardly had a stable roster to work with in his three years here, that's good news, or so it would seem. With greater talent, fans expect more out of the team and if there is one thing Whittingham has struggled to do at Utah, it's handle success well -- or at least at a higher level. You only have to look to Utah's inexcusable loss to UNLV a week after clobbering #11 ranked UCLA for proof of this. However, I think fans should give Whittingham the benefit of the doubt when it comes to this season, but that also means fans should expect far more from Utah than they received last year.
The problem with expectations, though, is that it doesn't take into account injuries, suspensions and other roster problems. This time last year, Utah fans were talking about a healthy Brian Johnson, along with a potent receiving game and a few months later, the prospects of Matt Asiata dominating the ground game. Then the injury bug hit and Utah's banked on core began to crumble. Who's to say that won't happen again this year? Maybe Johnson again goes down, but this time for the season. So understanding all of this, let me preface the following by saying that my expectations are based on Utah being healthy. Obviously if they are not, then you can throw the expectations right out the window.
A Mountain West ChampionshipEven though BYU rolled through the Mountain West again this year, I don't see any reason why the Utes shouldn't win the conference. Sure you can make the argument BYU has a better team, but the fact Utah came a 4th and Whatever (ugh, I've blocked that from my memory) from victory proves there isn't much difference between the two. In fact, the only difference between Utah and BYU appears to be the Cougars' ability to win the games they should, something Utah has still not grasped under Whittingham. Yet this season, that should be expected. If the Utes are ever going to win the conference championship, they're going to have to find a way to defeat pretty much everyone in conference, since 7-1 is probably the worst they can do and still manage a conference championship.
With TCU, BYU and a possible upstart CSU team at home next season, Utah shouldn't lose any of those games. That means, if they take care of business on the road, they should easily find themselves fighting for the championship against BYU at the end of the season. Anything less, especially if Utah is on the cusp of another 5-3 conference record, should not be accepted.
If the Utes do not win the Mountain West next season -- and that includes a tie -- I don't see how they can under Whittingham. The program loses much of their talent at the end of next season and will be right back to phase one, rebuilding for the future. The problem with that rebuilding project is they will be going up against pretty talented and veteran BYU and TCU squads. That might mean the Utes are looking at year six, or possibly even seven of the Whittingham era without one conference championship. Not good.
With BYU losing much of its defense, there is still a legitimate question about their stature at the top. And while I can't justify putting anyone above BYU in preseason picks next season, they are vulnerable, especially with the Holy War being played in Salt Lake. That leaves TCU, New Mexico and Air Force as the only legitimate challengers for the conference championship with BYU and Utah. The Lobos have yet to put enough wins together to win the conference and the Falcons need to replace Shaun Carney, who turned out to be an exceptional quarterback. But Utah has BYU and TCU coming to Salt Lake, which favors the Utes. It won't be an easy path to the conference championship for Utah, but it's a path that is nearly paved nonetheless. Now Utah just needs to take advantage of that path.
What are the expectations?This is what I think the expectations should be for next season.
- Win the MWC - C'mon, how many times can Utah finish 3rd?
- Beat BYU - Two Utah mistakes have kept the Utes from winning six straight against BYU. That has to end this season.
- Beat Oregon State - Revenge, simple as that.
- Compete and maybe beat Michigan - I won't lie, I'll be disappointed if Utah doesn't beat Michigan, but I'll understand. This will be a tough game for the Utes and I really simply ask they don't get blown out like they did against UCLA at the start of the '06 season and Oregon State this season.
- Win 10 games - The schedule sets up for a great chance of winning at least 10-games. Since Utah was a UNLV debacle away from it this season, it can be done.