Thursday night, for the first time in Utah history, two top-12 teams will meet at Rice-Eccles Stadium. The importance of this game can't be underestimated and in fact, should be played up. It is the biggest home game in Utah football history. It is the biggest game of Coach Kyle Whittingham's young career and it's a chance for Utah to essentially lock up at least a share of the Mountain West title, something that they've not been able to do in four years. When Utah takes the field Thursday, there will be pressure, but that is what comes with being an elite program.
So what is at stake later this week? Well, as mentioned, a conference championship. Then there is also the chance for ten wins, which would mark only fourth time in school history Utah won that many games. But most importantly, a real plausible shot at the BCS. It's still an uphill battle, but beating the Frogs would almost certainly prove this team is worthy of a BCS shot. It would also afford Whittingham the opportunity to forge his own path, something he has struggled to do since Urban Meyer left at the end of the 2004 season. If anything, for the sake of Utah football, that might be the most important gain from beating TCU.
A win, though, will be tough. The Frogs offer Utah their toughest test yet and the fact the Utes aren't getting any respect from Vegas (the bettors favor TCU) really goes to show how good this team is. And really, the Frogs have had the more impressive last few weeks and are still enjoying their throttling of BYU a few weeks ago. Which is good, because the Utes don't need to get overconfident. Sure, I doubt they'd look beyond the #11th team in the nation, however, when you're at home entering a big game, it's always best to come in with a chip on your shoulder. The lack of respect and the fact they've been overlooked themselves this season could play right into Kyle Whittingham's hands. And as we've seen the past few years, Utah plays its best football when they're counted out. I expect the same this week, with the Utes not only playing for the importance of the game, but also playing to make a statement. A victory here would cast aside every doubt every person has had about this team and coaching staff (including me). It would offer the Utes a chance to return to their 2004 level and it would position the program for future success. Especially if Kyle Whittingham returns and the coaching staff can be somewhat intact. But it will require victory this week.
I don't want to bank everything on this game, because even a loss won't end the season. TCU is a fine program and a respectable loss to them, while it won't be easy to accept, won't mean much for the future of this program. Utah could still finish with twelve wins and I don't think anyone could ever question or find disappointment in a season like that. Fortunately, that isn't set in stone and the Utes do have some added advantages heading into the game. For starters, it's at home and Utah hasn't lost a home game since dropping one to Air Force at the start of the 2007 season. Then there is the whole matchup issue, as the Utes seem to be in better position against the Frogs than most other Mountain West teams. They've won the last two, including last year's trip to Fort Worth, and their lone loss came in overtime back in 2005, on the road and with a controversial finish. Utah can play with TCU and even win. Yes, they will have to play better than Saturday against the Lobos, but if they do, there is no reason the Utes aren't 10-0 by Friday morning and one step closer to that BCS dream.