This is an odd feeling. I don't even remember what I felt like the last time Utah had a losing season. In fact, I don't even think I cared all that much. I remember talking with my mom about Ron McBride losing his job and her saying how sad she was because she always liked him ... but other than that? I couldn't tell you how bummed I was or what I felt like the next day after the sixth loss of that season (which came way early in 2002, unlike this year) - all I remember thinking is that poor McBride would not be around anymore and then I wondered ... who was going to replace him?
That was about the extent of it and then I returned to living my life ... thinking of teenage things and doing what teenagers did back then.
It's different now. I'm more invested in Utah football than I was ten years ago. I was a fan, don't get me wrong, and the losses stung (especially the losses to BYU), but on the whole, I got over it pretty quickly. I didn't think about the future or where the program was and where it should go. The only time I really remember wanting more than what Utah was offering happened when I played the old NCAA 2K2 on Dreamcast and realized just how little respect there was for the Utes' football program - they had a prestige ranking of only two stars. I'd play as Utah, of course, and try to build them into a national power and every time I would make a BCS bowl game, it would leave me wondering if that could ever be achieved here.
But like I said, that was the extent of it. It wasn't until 2003 that I really felt more invested in the program because, well, they were winning ... a lot ... and it became easier to watch and cheer, as it always is with a successful team.
I've been unhealthily hooked ever since. So, I guess you could say, from my perspective, this is the first real time I'm actually feeling what a losing season is like. Yeah, I kinda felt bummed in '02 when it happened, but that was a different time. Not only was I younger, and less caring, but the program was also not at a terribly strong level - in fact, two years prior, they had experienced a similarly bad losing season. The fall from where we were during the height of the McBride era (not counting '94, which seemed more an anomaly than anything else) to 5-6 wasn't that steep.
This fall seems far more dramatic. It is, after all, only four years removed from perfection and the biggest win in school history. I don't think anyone could have predicted the path the Utes would take out of New Orleans - from the Pac-12 invite to a losing season - because we expected that to be a launching point for this program. Maybe it was in the long term sense, since it did help get us that invite to the Pac-12, but right now? It feels like the Sugar Bowl was in an alternate reality. You know in Back to the Future how McFly's McSiblings begin to vanish in that family photo of his? Yeah ... that's how I feel about the Sugar Bowl.
This feeling is so foreign to me because we really, since McBride left, haven't experienced this type of hopelessness at the end of a season. Every year, there was something to cling to that made us optimistic about the next season - even 2006's victory over Tulsa in the Armed Forces Bowl gave us something! Maybe you're optimistic anyway and expect that next year is the year where Utah contends for the Pac-12 South crown (legitimately, not because they backed their way into it with a .500 conference record and because of an ineligible team), but for me, someone who has been, in the past, slapped with the negative tag, I'm left feeling like we're in purgatory. I want to believe, but then I look at the turnover we see from this team (which wasn't all that good) and the schedule, and my stomach drops. Next year, even if we are improved, could be just as bad as this year.
But in the past, there was at least one game that drove our confidence and optimism. It was almost always a bowl game, of course, because the Utes rarely lost those, but it was just enough to get you through the months until football started up again. Even after the 2010 Las Vegas Bowl, we at least had the Pac-12 invite to look forward to and the hope that Norm Chow could turn things around with a healthy (ha) Jordan Wynn.
This go around? I guess we look forward to next season so that we can get this season's nasty taste out of our mouths. But while I expect heightened anticipation the closer we get, since we always are excited and pumped for the upcoming season, expectations will not only be tempered, but we'll enter 2013 far more cautious and far less confident than we have any season since, probably, 2007 (if not longer).
Maybe that's a good thing. Maybe we needed to be humbled a bit - from the coaches on down to the fans. We have been experiencing the Pac-12 through the lens of the Mountain West ... you know, where a losing season is unthinkable. But then you realize Utah's nine straight winning seasons would put them only behind USC - every other Pac-12 team has had a losing season between 2003 and 2012. That's pretty remarkable and shows just how tough it is to sustain success in this conference.
Now comes the tough part, though ... not allowing that losing mentality to stick. Washington State, Colorado, and now even Cal, all have struggled regaining their footing and it's cost at least a couple coaches their job. Utah can't afford a string of losing seasons or we will end up like Colorado. That's the biggest challenge this coaching staff faces and something Kyle Whittingham hasn't endured since arriving at Utah. It's easy to build on winning, it's a whole 'nother thing to build on a faulty, or shaky, foundation.
That means 2013 is going to be an important tell-all season for Whittingham. Utah hasn't experienced back-to-back losing seasons since the end of the Jim Fassel era and the start of the McBride one. We can't allow that to change next year. For this team's future, for my sanity as a fan, we need to bounce back. Because the path to irrelevancy in college football manifests pretty damn quickly and once you're on it, it's harder than hell to pull yourself off it.
I don't know what the future holds for Utah football, and I don't know if everything will be all right or if this is the real beginning of the end for this coaching staff, but what I do know is that these types of seasons can change programs ... and not necessarily for the worse. My hope is that Whittingham will go over every second of every game and get to the root of what gave this program their first losing season in ten years.
This is a learning experience for a coach who inherited a strong program that had gone undefeated and really had a sky is the limit attitude. To his credit, Whittingham built on what McBride and Meyer started, but if we thought his job was done in 2008, we were wrong. This is the next step. He's now got to pull us out of our losing funk and give us that swagger and attitude we haven't had the past couple seasons.
My hope is that this downturn is correctable and superficial - that the problems we face aren't dramatic and severe, rather mostly due to talent and experience. If that's the case, and it's not coaching, or something even deeper, then the climb back should be easy. If it's worse, well then, what happened at the end of the 2002 season might be in the cards again.