Now that basketball is officially behind us, we can start looking to football and what hopefully will go down as one of the best seasons in Utah history. And though the hype leading up to this season can't compare to 2005 or even 2006, the expectations pretty much can. After dropping three of their first four games last year, Utah ended the 2007 season by going 8-1 and came within a defensive stop of winning 10 in a row. That success, coupled with the fact Utah returns much of its offense and good portion of their defense, has created buzz in and around the U campus. But how good will Utah really be?
Preseason expectations rarely seem to hold up once the season begins. 2004 is really the only time Utah actually lived up to what appeared to be ridiculously improbable expectations. Even prior to their first game against Texas A&M, fans and the media were already talking an undefeated season and a BCS bowl bid. Which, at the time, seemed a bit premature, since Utah hadn't gone undefeated since the Ike Armstrong era and had never come close to sniffing a bowl as big as the Fiesta -- well if you don't count 1994, but that was prior to the Bowl Championship Series. However, Utah shocked the college football world and dominated their way to that perfect season every fan was dreaming about in the summer of 2004. Since then, the Utes have not really lived up to those preseason expectations, but it does seem like they are slowly moving in that direction.
After Urban Meyer bolted for Florida and Kyle Whittingham took over, most predicted that there would not be a big drop-off between the 2004 and 2005 teams. Yet there was, as Whittingham took time to adjust to being a head coach and Utah's offense, which was very young at the time, struggled at gaining the experience needed to be fully successful. Utah went from 12-0 to 7-5, but finished the season with a stunning victory over BYU and then an even bigger victory over 24th ranked Georgia Tech in the Emerald Bowl. That finish, all guided by the hands of newly named starting quarterback Brett Rattliff, had people believing in another great run in 2006. That did not manifest, however, as Utah struggled with inconsistent quarterback play and no ground game whatsoever.
With Ratliff gone and Brian Johnson -- who had such promising numbers his sophomore year -- returning to the Utes after missing the 2006 season with an injury, expectations again were high. But this time around, they were a bit grounded because of Utah's tough out of conference schedule. Not only were they opening the season on the road against a solid Oregon State team, they would have to face UCLA at home and travel to Louisville -- who at the time were projected as not only winning the Big East, but possibly even competing for the national championship. Add that with their tough conference slat, games against BYU, TCU and New Mexico, and many fans and media members were predicting a more realistic outcome. Then things went south. Utah lost its starting running back only minutes into their game against the Beavers and Brian Johnson followed shortly after. Thankfully, Johnson would only miss 3 games, but Matt Asiata -- who was supposed to provide Utah's sorely needed running game -- was not so lucky. Utah lost him for the season.
After the opening season loss, Utah followed that defeat with a last second loss to Air Force a week later -- this time with Tommy Grady running the offense. Then the surprise of the season, in fact one of the biggest upsets of the season. At 0-2, Utah faced 11th ranked UCLA and rolled them, seemingly getting back on track, or so they thought. Utah, seven days after their huge win against UCLA, laid an egg the size of the Sears Tower -- not only losing to the woeful Rebels, but getting shut out. And just like that, everything gained, all the respect earned from their victory over UCLA, went right out the window. And it felt, at least for most Ute fans -- myself included -- the bottom had finally fallen out on the Whittingham era and Utah would go into the tank. What followed, though, was an amazing run that saw Utah knock off Louisville on the road, drill TCU and humiliate Wyoming. And even though Utah lost a very winnable game against BYU, they rebounded with an impressive and exciting victory over Navy in the Poinsettia Bowl.
2007 was not a great season for Utah, but it could have been disastrous. The return of Brian Johnson greatly helped the team, as he -- in games where he played most of the minutes -- went 8-1. Which has expectations for this season on the rise again and with a more favorable schedule, albeit a far tougher opening game than last year, there is a possibility Utah returns to the double digit win totals that they have not seen since Urban Meyer.
The Utes open the season against Michigan and it will be a huge test for this team. It's also going to be an extremely difficult game, as not only are they facing a new coaching staff, they are facing a program that still has not forgotten their home loss to Appalachian State to kick off last season. And while the game is obviously important for Utah, a loss would not cripple them and if they do what they should do, Utah will finish no worse than 3-1 in their out of conference schedule. That leaves conference play, where Utah has not been able to really contend for the championship. The schedule this year is a mixed bag for the Utes, with the good, of course, being that they play BYU and TCU at home. The bad, however, is that they have tough road games against New Mexico, Wyoming and Air Force, 3 places Utah has not faired well over the years. Wyoming will be fired up because of the shellacking they took at the hands of the Utes last year and the actions that followed (an onside kick, Joe Glenn flipping Kyle Whittingham off) and New Mexico, well, the Lobos have owned Utah recently, especially down there.
Expectations for this season should be reasonable, which means I'm not going to say the Utes will make a run at the BCS. They probably won't, but that does not mean they can't compete and win a conference championship. And that's where I think expectations should stand for this season. The Utes need to win the Mountain West, especially with the talent turnover they see after this season on offense. It won't be easy, though, as BYU will be favored to win a 3rd title. But the talent gap between Utah and BYU is minimal, in fact, I think they're fairly equal. Which is why the game last season was so competitive and, outside of a few bumps early in the season, the Utes' record was not much different than the Cougars'. With this year's Holy War being played in Salt Lake, there is no excuse for losing and if Utah can take care of business in conference play, beating teams that are obviously not as superior to them, the conference championship should come down to that game. But that will require Utah to play a complete season and not one where they wait until it's half-over to turn it on and get serious.