We're less than 24 hours from the Big Game™ and no one really knows what's going to happen Saturday. That's typically what happens when two teams this highly ranked meet up this late in the season. Someone is going to lose and that loser will have to face the prospects of playing in the Las Vegas Bowl.
Not a very good consolation prize.
For us Ute fans, we hope it's TCU and we have reason to be optimistic about Utah's chances. This game, after all, is being played in Salt Lake City - a place the Frogs have never won. Utah is also entering the contest with the 3rd longest active home win streak in the nation at 21 games. That includes the Utes' 13-10 win over TCU here two years ago.
But for Utah to win, they'll need to play top-five level football. This is a game where they must come out and produce the top performance of the season. No letdowns, no struggles and more importantly, no major mistakes. If the Utes can put together a performance we've come to expect in big games under Whittingham, there is no reason they won't walk off the field 9-0. If they don't, well 2010 could look more like 2009.
For that not to happen, they need the following:
Will Utah win the turnover margin?
If there is one place Utah has struggled the most this season, it's here. They just aren't very good at creating turnovers. It's why they rank toward the bottom in this category and it's a reason they could lose Saturday. Fortunately, last week against Air Force, they easily won the turnover margin by forcing five Falcon turnovers.
I don't expect a similar result this weekend, but if they can finish +2 in the category, they'll be well positioned to win this thing.
Who'll strike first?
10-0. That was the score after TCU's first two drives early in the 2008 game. It looked like Utah was pretty much done well before many fans had eased into their seats. They came back and actually held the Frogs scoreless the remainder of the game. That's the good news. The bad news is that this is a better TCU team at both ends. Utah can't fall behind 0-10 again because the climb will be that much more difficult. And as we saw in 2008, it took almost all sixty minutes to finally pull ahead.
If a similar situation unfolds Saturday, I don't know if they can do that.
So the Utes will have to come out and set the tone early. Maybe not score first, but answer every TCU drive with a powerful drive of their own. It wouldn't hurt if they could force Andy Dalton into a mistake or two. It'd be even better if they could keep the Frog offense out of the end zone for as long as possible.
TCU is a good team. A very good team. But Utah has one advantage the Frogs don't and that's the altitude of Rice-Eccles Stadium. That slowly turned in Utah's favor in 2008 as they methodically got back into that game. If they can keep the margin within a score heading into the second half, they will be in great position to take control of the game.
How will Utah's running game do against TCU's stout run defense?
The Utes aren't known for being a power running team this season and they don't need to be against TCU. However, they need to establish some type of run. If they can't, it's hard to imagine Jordan Wynn will be able to get it done through the air.
Last year, Utah couldn't do much on the ground and it made their offense about as one-dimensional as you could get. That can't happen again Saturday.
How will Utah's defense play the run?
Utah has a good run defense. Yes, Air Force played it well, but that's Air Force. TCU ain't runnin' the triple option Saturday. But for the Utes to contain this Frogs' offense, they will need to force the Frogs to beat them through the air. Andy Dalton is a pretty solid quarterback, but he's one that has struggled in big games away from home and if the game is left in his hands because Utah has taken away the run, you've got to like the Utes' chances.
Of course, that's easier said than done. The Frogs have a potent run game and this will be one of the more fascinating matchups in this game because both teams play each side of the ball here almost flawlessly.
What happens in a close game?
Almost everyone is predicting a close game. Even Vegas, who favors TCU, puts them at less than a touchdown favorite. By all accounts, if the experts are right, this could come down to the final play. Who, then, benefits?
Personally, and maybe this is a homer pick, I like Utah in a close game. Home teams almost always win these types of contests when both teams are highly ranked and it comes down to the fourth quarter. Look at Ohio State/Wisconsin, Alabama/South Carolina and more recently, Missouri/Oklahoma.
All six are fine teams. All six share one thing in common - the lower ranked home team won.
Will Saturday continue the trend?