Even though the Utes have officially played a home game (Montana State), this weekend really feels like the home opener. In fact, it will be the first Saturday game of the year and it's taking place in October. I don't recall that ever happening before and it's all due to a scheduling quirk that had Utah playing two road games prior to their bye-week.
To put that into perspective, by October 1st last year, the Utes had already played three home games.
Like I said, I can't recall a season where Utah had played only one home game once October rolled around, though I'm sure it's happened before (probably in the early 90s).
So that makes this weekend a bit more special. We've yet to experience an entire Saturday of tailgating and football watching at the U this year. I anticipate that will only boost the enthusiasm and anticipation for this game. It doesn't hurt that it's Homecoming and the first ever Pac-12 home game. Of course, playing it against a decent, and historically strong, Washington team only adds to the atmosphere.
It's also fitting, I guess, we're still not sure what to make of the Utes. They looked very good against a BYU Cougars team that is obviously struggling and faltered, at times badly, against a Trojans team that, talent aside, appears to be coached by a thirty-something year old novice.
What does that mean for Saturday?
Really, it's as if this season is starting anew. Certainly Utah is one game down in the conference standings and they do need a victory to keep pace with Arizona State in the Pac-12 South, but their loss to SC was never going to be the deciding factor in anything outside the potential of perfection. In my mind, even though they're 0-1 in conference play and could have gained a huge leg up had they won a few Saturdays ago, they still kind of feel like an 0-0 conference team.
That changes this week, though. SC was a throwaway game solely because we knew, due to sanctions, the Trojans would not be able to qualify for a spot in the conference title game. Washington might not be a division rival, but a loss here, coupled already with their defeat to SC, would pretty much take Utah out of the Pac-12 South race.
A win, though, puts them right in the the thick of things heading into what could be the biggest game of the season - a contest between division rival Arizona State.
I don't want to sound like I'm overlooking the Huskies toward that game next Saturday, because I'm not. Instead, I'm only illustrating why Saturday is so important for the Utes' division hopes. They need to win this weekend.
Painfully obvious, right?
But like I said originally, this kind of feels like a new beginning to the season. Yes, the loss to SC counts in the standings and I'm not going to ignore that defeat, but it was never a must for the Utes if they were going to win the Pac-12 South. The Washington game is.
That's the exciting thing about this. There really hasn't been a conference game this important this early in the season since TCU in '06. The way the old Mountain West's pecking order played out, every must-win conference game (I guess you could say most conference games are must-win, but eh) from '07 to '10 came later in the season.
Not the fourth game.
Why? Because the cream of the conference, year in and year out, was essentially the same three teams: Utah, TCU and BYU. The rivalry game against the Cougars was always scheduled at the end of the season and Utes-Frogs' game slowly gravitated from mid-September in '05, to early October in '06, late October in '07 and finally settled in on early-to-mid November by '08, '09 and '10.
For the past three seasons, the two biggest conference games were always at the very end of the year.
That isn't the case anymore. Utah's already played one of its biggest conference games of the season and now will string together two more before taking a brief out of conference road trip back east to take on Pittsburgh.
Right there, in a span of only a month, the Utes already have played three of its most important conference games.
After their brief trip to Big East, err ACC, Country, Utah once again finds itself playing must-win, but far from guaranteed, football games against Oregon State, Arizona/Cal, Washington State and Colorado.
Not an easy stretch by any means.
Saturday, in Utah's first home weekend game of the season, that gauntlet begins.
Hope they're ready.