Utah faces its toughest test this Saturday as they travel to take on undefeated TCU. The Horned Frogs are vying for the school's first BCS berth and a win against the Utes would all but put them there.
For Utah, this game marks a chance to win at least a share of the conference championship (assuming they beat San Diego State in two weeks) and position themselves for a chance at the BCS. While the odds might be stacked for the latter to happen, it's certainly something they will be playing for this weekend.
Which is essentially the scenario we saw a year ago, though the roles were reversed. In 2008, a 13-10 Utah victory, the Utes entered their epic showdown against TCU undefeated and a test away from pretty much locking up a spot in the Sugar Bowl. The Frogs entered with one-loss and were trying to play spoiler, while also bolstering their BCS chances.
The game lived up to its billing, as Utah would only take the lead in the final 50 seconds after trailing the entire game. It was, until that Sugar Bowl, the biggest win in school history. It was also the biggest game in Mountain West history. Is this year's tilt even bigger?
Utah was ranked 10th and TCU 11th when they met a year ago. TCU was also poised to overtake Boise State with a win and that meant it was pretty much a BCS elimination game. This year, however, that isn't the case. TCU could be eliminated from the BCS picture with a loss, but a win by Utah doesn't assure the Utes anything except the inside track to the Mountain West title.
Which probably suggests last year's game was a bit more important. Plus, both teams appeared to be fairly equal. In fact, the Frogs actually were a couple-point favorites over Utah, even though the game was being played in Salt Lake City. This time around, it seems there is quite a bit of distance between the two programs. Which explains the Vegas line, which is as high as 17-points in some places.
The Utes also haven't looked entirely impressive this season. They've eeked out wins over San Jose State, Colorado State, Air Force and Wyoming - teams that, outside of the Falcons, aren't doing much this season. But is it fair to suggest Utah isn't impressive because their games haven't exactly been blowouts? I mean, this is a team that hasn't lost in conference play since the 2007 season and boast a solid 21-1 record in their last 22-games.
Yet the general consensus is that the Utes won't put up much of a fight. Which is hard to believe given the history of this series since TCU joined the Mountain West in 2005.
For starters, Utah is 3-1 against the Frogs over the past four seasons. That includes three straight victories and that lone loss came in overtime on a controversial play. The Frogs finished that year 11-1.
Only one team in the Mountain West seems to have their number and it is Utah. They're 1-1 in Fort Worth and with their worst team of the Whittingham era (2006) soundly beat TCU in Salt Lake. That would be only one of two losses. Their other came against BYU - who won the Mountain West that year.
Why the hype entering this game? They're good. Really good. Arguably the best team in Mountain West history. If they go undefeated, you might have to drop the arguably from that statement. The Utes, on the other hand, aren't really good. They might be good, but that's not good enough to beat what many perceive to be a national champion contender.
Since TCU's loss to Utah in November of last year, they've yet to lose. That includes an impressive bowl win over the Boise St. Broncos in the Poinsettia Bowl (their main challenger this year for a BCS spot) and road wins over Clemson and BYU. But beyond just wins, it's been the way they've won that has turned heads. Because if you look at the statistics, it paints a clear picture - TCU has dominated this season. That's not quite something Utah could have said a year ago entering their game against the Frogs.
Nationally, their defense ranks fourth in points given up per game and third in yards given up per game. But what really sets this TCU team apart from other Mountain West squads (and TCU of '08) is their offense.
Believe it or not, the Frogs rank sixth in the nation in points per game. They also rank eighth in yards per game. So, they basically have a great defense and a really good offense. For any opponent, those are numbers you do not want to see because it signals there isn't much weakness to exploit.
The good news is that the Utes have a really good defense. It might not be great, though a great performance this week would certainly make it that, but it's extremely good. I don't anticipate TCU putting up 37-points Saturday (their season average). It's just not going to happen.
That's why I believe Utah has a chance to win. I've always thought it better to have a so-so offense and a really good defense than a so-so defense and a really good offense (if you can't have both). Just look at BYU. I think it's safe to say they have a really good offense. But how'd that help them against TCU a few weeks ago? Their offense was shut down and because their defense was suspect, it allowed the Frogs to move the ball pretty much at their desire. The same thing happened a year prior.
This will not be an issue for Utah Saturday. They might not have a very good offense, but they don't need a very good offense to beat TCU. They just need their defense to step it up and keep the game close enough so that a few potential mistakes by the Frogs, or big plays by Jordan Wynn or Eddie Wide, could push them to the win.
Obviously Utah is facing a tall order here. Winning will take absolutely the best effort we've seen from them since the Sugar Bowl. But like the Sugar Bowl, it can be done. The Utes know this and they will enter Saturday's game with the mindset they can win. Just like they did back in January when they first stunned the college football world. Well the world is watching and doubting again and there is no better time to prove to them that Utah is still the King of the Mountain West and the best non-BCS team in the country.
Utah wins if...They don't turn the ball over. They have to thread the needle with this one if they even want to be in the game entering the final minutes. Turnovers will kill them. If Wynn struggles as the new starter and throws a couple of interceptions, or the receivers fumble, it's going to be a long night. TCU has too good of a defense to not pounce on Utah mistakes. And while our defense will do its job at keeping us in the game, if they're going to win it, they'll need an error-free night by the offense.
TCU wins if...They force Wynn into turning the ball over and shut down the run. TCU's run defense is good, but Utah's run offense is good (26th nationally), too. If the Utes can't run, they can't win.
What will happen...Utah plays a mistake free game. They find a solid running attack, chew up some game clock and play very conservative on offense. Defensively, they shut down Andy Dalton, stall the Frogs' running attack and the game plays out similar to 2007. Utes win 21-17.
Am I nuts for picking Utah? I can't go against them. I just can't. Not in a big game. Not after I've seen Whittingham teams rise up even when they weren't very good. We will win this. What are your predictions?