We're all Ute fans here, yet I can't help but imagine there are varying degrees of acceptability. Some fans are ok with 8-wins and a bowl victory every season, some fans are not. It's interesting to note the differences here, but I think there tends be a larger number of Utah fans who do not accept mediocrity, or even play slightly above mediocre. This is a big reason why Ron McBride was eventually fired and why there is still a large number of Ute fans who have yet to fully embrace Kyle Whittingham as head coach.
So this year they begin 0-0, just as years past, yet expectations are higher. The experience, talent, coaching stability and schedule have many of us believing this team is capable of advancing to the next level. But what is the next level and if the Utes do not step it up, what will we as fans tolerate at the end of the season?
There are many scenarios, some good, some bad and some that are pretty meh, but they're all possibilities. And as last year showed Ute fans, expectations, whether made at the beginning of the season, or after a 27-0 defeat to the worst team in all of the Mountain West, have a good chance of being proven wrong. But it doesn't change the fact there is a ceiling for expectations and a floor, as well. Some may feel this team is only capable of winning 10-games, while others may feel they can go undefeated. Yet I'm willing to bet it's nearly universally accepted this team will win more than 9 games. And why not? They managed to do so last season, even with all the injuries and what many thought would be the hardest schedule in years. So why not this year, if they stay healthy?
But what if they don't.
I think there are many fans who concede the Utes may just very well lose to Michigan (myself included). So if they lose there, drop a home game to Oregon State, lose to New Mexico and TCU, but manage to defeat BYU and win their bowl game, is that a successful season? Will Ute fans tolerate it?
Let's look at it a bit deeper.
If that were to happen, Utah would finish the season 9-4, or an identical record as the year before. Not bad, but definitely a step in the wrong direction. Consider:
- They win the Holy War, ending BYU's streak at 2 seasons, maybe even ending their BCS hopes.
- They win the school's 8th straight bowl game, and Whittingham's 4th.
Of course, there are also some bad things to consider, as well:
- Unlikely 2-losses get them a conference championship, especially if BYU is in the hunt for a BCS berth during the final game.
- 2-losses at home. Last year, Utah only managed to lose once at home, a huge step in the right direction for Whittingham, who had lost 2-games at home in each of his first two seasons.
- No top-25 finish. 9-4 didn't get them there last year, it's doubtful it will get them there again this season, even with a victory over BYU.
- Two losses to BCS teams. Bah
- Last chance at the Mountain West? If they can't do it this year, then when?
Let's say the above happens, obviously Whittingham would not get pushed out the door, but could we, as fans, tolerate such a season? The BYU game would definitely soften the blow, but would it be enough?
What about this scenario...
Utah loses to Michigan, but manages to beat Oregon State, however, they lose to New Mexico and TCU, before ending the season with a victory over BYU and their bowl opponent.
- 10-wins. For the first time since 2004, Utah manges ten wins.
- A win over BYU, always good.
- A possible top-25 finish, especially if they have a solid matchup in their bowl game.
- A decent win over a solid BCS program.
- Another bowl win.
- Not likely they win the Mountain West with two conference losses.
- If they're good enough to beat BYU and Oregon State at home, how can they not defeat TCU and New Mexico?
This is obviously more acceptable than scenario 1, but is it still good enough? If Utah isn't beating BYU for the conference championship -- likely won by the Cougars in both scenarios -- does it really matter?
Finally, a 3rd scenario that could happen...
Utah opens the season with a victory over Michigan, but follows it up with losses on the road to Air Force and New Mexico.
- An 11-2 record would look really good for Utah.
- They almost certainly would finish ranked.
- Another victory over BYU.
- Two solid wins over two solid BCS teams.
- A bowl victory.
- Again, it's unlikely Utah manages to win the MWC with 2-losses.
- If they can beat all these teams and lose to Air Force and New Mexico, won't it only solidify the argument Whittingham struggles at consistency?
The final scenario is the best one, but again, would it be tolerable? That's a tough question to ask, because it means we likely face some great highs, but the realization poor play, on the road, against teams Utah should beat, cost them not only the conference, but a BCS bid. Ouch.
Out of the above scenarios, I think I could tolerate #3 and maybe #2, but it would be hard. If #1 were to happen, I think I would concede something isn't right and this program might need a minor shakeup to get things on track. Regardless, though, Utah can kill any skepticism by performing to their potential. They do that and the only scenario we'll be looking at is what game Utah locks up the Mountain West Conference.