During the first six games, I think we've downplayed the importance of Utah taking care of business against weaker opponents. I say this because, prior to 2008, that had been a staple in Whittingham-coached teams. They often underperformed against poorer opponents, even though they seemed to play up to better teams.
That led to slow starts and a backs-against-the-wall mentality that really shouldn't have been there to begin with. Those struggles, in what can only be considered games the Utes really had no business losing, cost them three chances at winning the Mountain West title.
Granted, I'm not suggesting they should have won it in 2005, 2006 and 2007, but they should have at least been playing for a title share during the final week of the season. That didn't happen. The closest came two years ago, but only because the Cougars had a conference game postponed against San Diego State due to fires and Utah entered with one more victory.
What we saw were defeats to winnable opponents like Colorado State (2005), San Diego State (2005 -at home!), New Mexico (2005 - at home part II), Wyoming (2006), New Mexico again (2006), Air Force (2007) and finally, UNLV (2007).
Whittingham has lost only 15 games as a head coach here at Utah and if you think about it, seven of those losses came against fairly bad opponents. Or at least teams that weren't at the level of what we expect from Utah (though Air Force was good in 2007).
That's an exceptional number and makes up nearly half of the defeats Utah's seen over the last four and a half years. Cut that almost in half (say 3-less losses) and the Utes are looking at a 45-12 record in the Whittingham era (compared to the current 42-15).
It doesn't seem like a big difference, but since every one of those losses were in conference games - where Whittingham has gone 24-10 - those losses do add up. If, as I suggested, Utah had won just three more conference games, that record jumps to 27-7 (25-7 pre-2009).
With a record like that, it's hard to imagine the Utes at least not tying for a conference championship between 2005 and 2007. Especially when you realize Bronco Mendenhall - who has two championships - was 27-5 prior to this season. There is not much difference and that's with Bronco owning one more undefeated conference season than Whittingham.
Now I'm actually being fairly conservative here. In reality, it's not irrational to suggest they should have won at least five of those seven games they lost. That changes things even more dramatically.
Which is why I am impressed with their first six games. Not because Utah has looked great in every victory (they definitely haven't), but because they haven't allowed the same type of performances to wreck a season. Two years ago, with four out of their first six games coming on the road, I'm not so sure the Utes are 5-1 at this point.
And really, history seems to back up that claim. This is the second best start Whittingham has had at Utah (only bested by 2008, when they were 6-0 at this point). After six games, this is where the Utes stood prior to last year:
Now the 2006 season is interesting because it does suggest there are some similarities between that year's Utes and our current squad. This is a big reason why I'm not fully committed to the idea there won't be a few retread losses that are so painfully reminiscent of the pre-2008 Whittingham Utes.
In that season, they opened 4-2 and 2-0 in conference play. They actually looked like they would contend for the title after upsetting TCU in week six, but then faltered badly against Wyoming and New Mexico. Even then, even with those two horrible losses (on top of their embarrassing defeats to UCLA and Boise State - which thankfully there is no similar situation this year...yet), they won eight games and finished with only three conference losses.
But again, going back to the What If aspect of Whittingham's worst losses, you can find a plausible scenario where the Utes are playing BYU for the championship to end that season.
Had they knocked off New Mexico, a game they led by a wide margin at the half - they enter the Holy War with only one conference loss. A victory over the Cougars (hypothetical, people) would have given them a share. Who knows how Utah plays differently entering that game knowing they could still realistically win the conference crown. Maybe the outcome doesn't change, but even if it didn't, 9-4 looks a lot better than 8-5, right?
That is the key to this season. At this point in 2005, the Utes were 0-2 in the Mountain West. Already out of contention. In 2007, they were 0-2 again in the Mountain West and pretty much already out of contention. The only years where they weren't out of contention prior to this season under Whittingham were the mentioned 2006 campaign and last year.
Which means Air Force is a pretty damn important game. It's not quite the sure-win maybe UNLV was last week, but it's also a game the Utes shouldn't lose. Regardless of how good the Falcons may be this season, they're not as talented and the game is being played in Salt Lake. In my mind - even though I think Air Force can beat Utah - that means no excuses.
If Utah is 6-1 after Saturday, it will mark only their second 3-0 Mountain West start in the Whittingham era. To put that in context (beyond just the last four and a half seasons), when the Utes start 3-0 in conference play, good things tend to happen. Since joining the Mountain West, each year Utah has started 3-0, they've won at least a share of the conference and 9 or more games.
Obviously that isn't hard to imagine because you're not going to win many conference championships if you're struggling at the start of conference play (I mean, an 0-3 start destines you to a bad finish). But it's every single time. We're not talking about one year the Utes opening up 3-0 and then faltering to finish 3-5. Since joining the Mountain West, when they've started 3-0, they've won the title.
Does that mean this is likely again if Utah wins Saturday? Hard to say. But it will mean, with their homestand including two very beatable conference opponents, they'll probably enter the TCU game at 5-0 in Mountain West play. And that positions them for the conference championship extremely late in the season.
Compared to the pre-2008 Utes, that's a great accomplishment. If they can get to that point, it might finally prove that Utah isn't so susceptible to poor losses against poor teams. And for every year that isn't like 2008, it means Utah can stay relevant and put together a string of really good seasons and potentially a good deal of conference championships.
But that's all moot if they can't win Saturday.