For Utah, that's not entirely a bad thing. We didn't expect the Utes to come out of the gates looking like the perfect 2008 squad. There was just too much turnover on the offensive side of the ball to justify extremely high expectations. But I'm not sure we expected it to be this bad.
Yes, they're undefeated and hold the nation's longest winning streak, but it feels like the other shoe is about to drop on the season. It's similar to the position Utah found themselves in entering the TCU game in 2005. They weren't dreadful in their first two games (victories over Arizona & Utah State), but they certainly weren't performing at the level many expected they needed to if they were going to win another Mountain West title.
What we saw Saturday against San Jose State is not championship football. The Utes looked abysmal throughout much of the game and a repeat performance, even against a slumping Oregon team, will doom them to their first loss since the 2007 season. Luckily for them, their mistakes don't seem to be fatal and can be corrected before Saturday's big game. But we'll get to that in a bit.
For Oregon, this is an entirely different situation than most fans expected heading into the season. The Ducks were supposed to contend for a Pac-Ten title and right now, it's unclear if they'll even finish with a winning record. After an ugly opening season loss to Boise State, Oregon did rebound against Purdue, but it was - much like Utah's victory over the Spartans - hollow in the sense they did not look all that good.
That's bad news because Utah should be better than Purdue. Of course, I expect the Ducks to be better than the Spartans. This creates a paradox of sorts here because neither team has proven on the football field they're capable of beating the other. Which means we enter this game with Oregon being only a slight favorite and that's because the game is on their turf. But will it be enough?
That is what I believe will be the key to the game for the Utes. Whether or not they can walk into a tough environment and produce enough to build on their sixteen-game winning streak and maybe set the tone for the rest of the season. Right now, after what I saw against San Jose State, I'm not so sure.
Of course, I don't want to put too much weight in Saturday's game. The Utes had a similar performance last year on the road against a New Mexico team that was basically just as bad as the Spartans. It was a putrid offensive performance then that nearly did in their perfect season. They also had a huge game the week after against TCU and it isn't hard to concede they probably overlooked the slumping Lobos a bit in anticipation of that game. It nearly cost them, they should have learned from it, but this is a new batch of players and some new coaches, so I guess it's not hard to see that mistake repeating again this season.
Now that's just one potential answer to the question why Utah looked down right sorry Saturday. Maybe they aren't good and maybe they'll get their clocks cleaned against the Ducks. But this is the position I thought we'd be in, except we know they're not horribly bad to the point where an Oregon win is inevitable. We knew Utah State and San Jose State would not offer up much in terms of a measuring stick and they haven't. Oregon will be the true test to whether this Utah team can contend with TCU and BYU for the championship or fall back a bit to the middle of the pack.
Even then, with how poor the Ducks have looked the last two weeks, we still might not fully understand where this team stands until later in the season. But if Utah can continue winning - even if it's ugly - none of that matters. They won ugly much of last year and it often left us questioning whether they were capable of winning a conference championship. They were. On the flip side, BYU looked mighty impressive in their first few weeks of the season and then fizzed out quickly - losing to TCU, Utah and Arizona.
I don't know if 2009 will play out the same way (it probably won't), but I can hope that San Jose State was just a fluke game where the Utes struggled because they overlooked their opponent. There are reasons for me to believe this is the case because, as mentioned earlier, I didn't see anything fatal with their struggles. The offense looked good for 70-percent of the time, but it was that 30-percent, generally finishing drives, that ultimately hurt them. The defense also played well, especially against the run. Then again, it could've just been the opponent. This week's opponent, Oregon, does have some issues that could be fatal, however.
For starters, the Ducks defense looks worse than anything Utah might see the entire season. Granted, Purdue has always established great offenses under Joe Tiller (and now Danny Hope), but Oregon was abused all night by the Boilermaker offense and I've got to think the Utes can exploit those same issues Saturday.
Because of their lackluster run defense, expect something similar to what we saw against San Jose State, but maybe with a bit more Eddie Wide and Sausan Shakerin. This again will take some pressure off Terrance Cain and set possibly an early tone where turnovers aren't killing drives (though it should be noted Cain did not cause any of the turnovers in Utah's win Saturday).
On the other side of the ball, Oregon's offense looked good, but I wouldn't say great. Jeremiah Masoli was 11 of 21 for 163 yards, which isn't awful and he did run the ball fairly well - leading the team with 84-yards. But this is Purdue we're talking about and I'm not sure if they've ever been known for their defenses. I mean, this is the same team that found itself in a shootout against Toledo in week one. The Rockets might have knocked off Colorado, but I think that's a bit more of an indictment on the Buffs than it is on anything else.
Utah's defense should give the Ducks a far better game than Purdue and the offense, though still a bit wet behind the ears, probably won't have too much issue running the ball. That means Cain's ability to find receivers and Utah's need to finish drives will dictate how this game goes.
Right now, though, I really don't know what to expect. I hope for a Utah victory and I think they can win, but it's hard to tell if their issues from Saturday were really a one-time thing or a growing trend. I guess we'll find out.
Utah wins if...The defense plays to its potential and the offense does not turn the ball over and they finish drives. They do that and victory is likely. They don't and we're going to be tasting defeat for the first time in a long, long time.
Oregon wins if...They force Utah into too many turnovers, stall drives and stuff the run. I don't know how good the Ducks are, but I've got to think they're better than their performances the last two weeks. If they are, they should win this game.
What will happen...I felt really good about this game around 8:40 Saturday night, shortly after the Utes went up 7-0 on the Spartans. I'm now not sure. In fact, I think this has loss written all over it. The Utes aren't playing well. It's on the road and Oregon is still trying to find an identity. They are due for a good game and so are the Utes. Except I don't think it'll come this week for Utah. They'll get better as the season progresses, but that will take more than three games. Oregon wins 31-21.
I hate picking against the Utes and I pray I'm wrong, but I don't have a good feeling. Not after Saturday's snooze fest.
What are your predictions for the game?