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Close games and the Pac-12

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If 2008 taught Utah fans anything, it's that the path to greatness can be extremely narrow. 

Those Utes won five games by a touchdown or less en route to an undefeated season and Sugar Bowl win over Alabama. 

Had a play or two gone the other way in any of those games and Utah is looking at a much different finish than what we eventually witnessed. Could you imagine '08's Utes ending the season 8-4 with a berth to the Poinsettia Bowl? 

That's the importance of close games. 

With a step up in competition in future seasons, it's likely blowouts become a distant memory. It's rare that teams, at least at the BCS level, bulldoze through their schedule. 

Just ask the 2010 Auburn Tigers. They finished undefeated and won the national championship, yet seven of their 14 wins were decided by 8 points or less - including a one point win over Alabama and three point wins over Clemson, Kentucky and Oregon. 

The biggest difference Utah will see in 2011 compared to last season is the competitiveness of each opponent. The Utes rolled to blowout wins early last season in part because of their awful first-half schedule. 

That's not going to be the case this year. Outside their opener against Montana State, every other game could come down to the final minutes and that's going to be a radical adjustment for this coaching staff, since in the old Mountain West, they could expect at least a handful of blowouts in the out of conference schedule and when facing the bottom half of the league.

Not anymore. Even expecting a blowout, on the road, against Washington State is ridiculous. 

That's not to say blowouts won't happen and I'm sure the Utes will be on the bad side of one or two in the coming years (maybe even as soon as the 2nd game of this season), but far more games will be decided in the closing minutes of the fourth quarter than what we're used to seeing. 

The challenge now comes down to how the coaches react in close situations. Are they going to be aggressive or conservative? Will the program wilt or man up in the clutch? 

Fortunately, history does give us an idea.

It's not like Coach Whittingham and the Utes haven't played in a close contest before. As I said, in 2008, they were 5-0 in games decided by a touchdown or less. 

Of course, that was a great team and it's absurd to expect that type of result week in and week out. Utah, like they have in the past, will lose a close game or two in a season. The thing is, it can't be a reoccurring thing. Close losses are going to happen, but if the Utes are going to succeed in the Pac-12, they're going to have to win far more of 'em than they lose. 

So how has Whittingham done in close games at Utah? 

Since he became head coach, Utah has won 17 of 27 games decided by 8 points or less. This includes his first year, when the Utes won only three of seven close games. The last three seasons, he is 11-2 in games decided by 8 points or less and 13-4 going back to 2007. 

That ain't bad. 

To put it into comparison, look at Mike Stoops since 2005 at Arizona: 12-20.

This number is a bit skewed by  his struggles early in his career (their first winning season was in '08), but even if you go from '08-'10, you still are looking at an overall losing record at 7-10.

I use Stoops as an example because Arizona has been the steady average team of the Pac-12 the last few years. They've never entirely been great, yet not bad enough to bottom out. Their average finish over the last three seasons in the Pac-10 has been fourth - with two fifth place finishes in '08 and '10. 

The difference between the Wildcats being a true challenger to the title and a middle of the pack team they've become the last three years can be summed up in that 7-10 record. 

If Arizona had improved that even marginally the past few seasons, they're instantly a better program than they currently are and Stoops, who has yet to really have a breakout season in Tucson, probably has a bit more breathing room and support from the boosters and fans.

As is, though, Arizona is only 23-16 the past three seasons. That's not awful, especially compared to where they were just three seasons before that, but 23-16 is only slightly above average.

The program hasn't been able to make the leap because, in close games, they've struggled. Last year, the Wildcats weren't bad at 3-3 in close games, but those three losses were the difference between a disappointing season and the best of the Stoops era.

They started it 3-0, including back-to-back last minute wins over Iowa and and Cal, but dropped a two-point decision to Oregon State at home in week four, bounced back to win three straight, before ending the season losing five in a row. 

Of those five losses, two were by less than eight points. Their first was against SC on the road when Arizona, ranked 18th at the time, failed in a comeback bid after trailing by 10 entering the final quarter. 

The final was at home against hated Arizona State. The Sun Devils won in double overtime on a blocked extra point.

The reeling Wildcats would go on to get dumped badly in the Alamo Bowl. 

Had Arizona won their two close games at home against two teams that didn't even finish with a winning record, they not only finish with a bit more swagger, they record nine regular season wins for the first time since Dick Tomey's Wildcats won 11 regular season games in '98.

Like I said, the path to greatness is narrow. Arizona was 3 points away from being 9-3 heading into their winnable bowl game.

But because they stumbled at home against Oregon State and then face-planted at the end of their schedule, the Wildcats limped into the offseason with a less than stellar 7-6 record and five straight losses. 

I'm rambling a bit, so I want to wrap this up with one final thought: 

The Pac-12 is going to offer up some heart-stopping action this year. If this is going to be a successful season, Utah is going to have to win the close games. If not, then what Arizona has gone through the past few years might be in store for the Utes.

Can they do it?