Utah is at a crossroads entering 2013 and the path the program takes next season will undoubtedly impact its future and settle whether Kyle Whittingham really has what it takes to lead this team further into their Pac-12 experiment.
This year is a season Whittingham would probably like to forget. I'm guessing he, just like most every other Ute fan, will agree that it has been the worst of his tenure here and the startling collapse of the football team, from preseason Pac-12 South contenders to not even making a bowl game, is pretty stark - and whether they deserved a bowl berth or not, when it's all said and done, you can't definitively claim they weren't good enough for it. The fact they couldn't muster one more win for bowl eligibility, damns the season even more.
Looking back at 2012's incarnation has not been fun. In doing so, you'll see a lot of poor play, undisciplined action, questionable coaching and just bad performances almost universally. This team, from week one to just this past Friday, hardly made any progress ... and you could certainly claim they regressed a bit over the months. At no point in this season, whether it was in the opening moments of their overtime loss to the Aggies, or the pathetic home finale against Arizona, did they look remotely as good as they did a year ago - even though they were expected to be better.
Against Colorado, who just might be the worst BCS team in the country, Utah needed the magic of Reggie Dunn to pull out a victory. The game was so shameful, that it appeared, at one point, they would lose again to the Buffaloes. Sure, credit their resolve and the fact they won on the road for the first time this season - but that was an ugly game that pretty much defined what was mostly an ugly season.
The sad part about the these Utes, and I don't want to pile too hard on 'em because I do believe a great deal of players did their best and wanted the best, but the sad part is that when you look back at the season ... what really stands out? Sure, the back-to-back blowout home wins over Cal and Washington State were nice, but in terms of quality, there really isn't much of it on this schedule. It's like eating a bunch of whipped cream for Thanksgiving - it might fill you up, but you really want the turkey and mashed potatoes. We didn't have that type of victory this season - a win that would be memorable even years from now. Oh sure, the BYU game was pretty excellent, but in terms of Pac-12 victories? In two years, the Utes have failed to defeat one Pac-12 team that has finished with a winning record. Ouch.
I actually touched on the potential of those big wins earlier this year and I had hoped there would be at least one of those victories in 2012. Nope. We came closest against USC and Oregon State, but in both games, fell apart late. Those are the wins you remember ... knocking off a top-eight Beaver team in their stadium or beating the Trojans in a frenzied, packed Rice-Eccles Stadium on a historic Thursday night. It's those magical moments that keep us coming back and wanting more. It's those moments that take a bad season and give it meaning. I guess, in that regard, I'm thankful for that BYU game ... because right now, it still stands, even as bad as the Cougars have looked this season, as the Utes' best win.
We like to talk about how the program has outgrown the rivalry, but I think this year has proven we're not there yet. We'll continue looking to the rivalry for our defining moments until the team actually starts creating those moments in the Pac-12 - and no, beating Cal by an explosive margin does not count. In this regard, we really have no one to blame but ourselves for making this game as important as it has been the last two years by failing to achieve any type of tangible success in conference play.
So, that leaves us with a broken season and a lot of questions heading into 2013. It also leaves us with a lot of expectations, even if they're not at the level we're quite used to over the past seven years. Instead of thinking big, I believe it's wise if our expectations are in inches instead of feet.
Should we expect a better record next year?
That's a tough question to answer because this team still has to replace a few key parts on both the offensive and defensive ends. Star Lotulelei, John White IV, and Reggie Dunn are not going to be easily replaced. Even so, the experienced gained across the board - from players to coaches - at least suggests there should be some improvement. But then, you also have to factor in Utah's schedule, which, whether you're excited about it or not, becomes far more difficult next season than last with the addition of Oregon and Stanford.
The good news is that it appears the scheduling gods have been kind to Utah once again and decided, for whatever reason, that they're going to keep Washington State on our schedule instead and replace Oregon with Washington, a team Utah has yet to beat in the Pac-12 (and has never actually defeated ... ever). Hallelujah!
In that regard, while the schedule toughens, there are still opportunities for next year's Utes to prove they're actually, you know, improved. I get people look at that schedule and see losing season written all over it - and hey, maybe they're absolutely right. But this goes beyond just overall wins and losses. I've said it already, Utah has zero Pac-12 wins over winning teams and the first thing that improving would change, you would think, is that stat. No, I am not expecting Utah to beat both Stanford and Oregon. In fact, I'm not expecting them to beat either at this point. However, if they truly are better in 2013, there should be at least one surprise win - a victory that makes you think, "yes, things are getting better."
Pick whomever you want - but it has to happen. Maybe it's a home game against a continued success in Oregon State ... or a home win against the Bruins. Maybe it's an upset win of the Trojans in the Coliseum ... whatever the game, there is going to be ample opportunity for the Utes to prove they are better.
Now if they finish with the same record and the same boring, uninspiring victories over the cellar of the conference, the excuse of having a difficult schedule rings hollow for me. It doesn't work and it won't fly. Improving means you're actually starting to win those games that we've expected to win the last two years.
But of course! What about talent? Yeah ... what about it?
I don't doubt Utah is a step behind a good portion of the Pac-12 in talent, but the gap is not nearly as large as some would have you believe. You know how I know this? Because the Utes have been pretty competitive in nearly every game this season. Cal, Washington State and Colorado - the three worst teams in the conference - have been rocked left and right this year. That's a talent problem. When you're getting absolutely destroyed week in and week out, then you can claim talent as the major reason you're losing. But Utah has been in almost every game this season and had their chance to beat almost every opponent on the schedule.
They didn't lose entirely because of talent or experience - they lost because of poor play calling and poor execution.
To me, as warped as it sounds, I find that good news because it shows me, excuses aside, we're not as far as maybe we think we might be at climbing up the Pac-12 ladder. If I am a Colorado fan right now, I'm looking at a program that has been absolutely decimated the past few seasons and I don't see that with Utah. So, while this season was absolutely frustrating, the competitiveness in a lot of the Utes' losses, at least gives me reassurance and something good to look to as we enter what is hopefully a better and more successful season.
BUT - and there is a gigantic but here - excuses only get you so far. Whittingham has been quick to tell us that the talent isn't quite at the level needed to be a good Pac-12 team. Maybe it's not quite at the level right now, but come 2013? It should be. I say should be because we all watched the same games and even though the team struggled, both on offense and defense, for the most part, they were in the games ... they were a handful of plays away from a winning record and a tenth-straight bowl bid.
That excuse works today. It's not going to work next year. It's not going to work if Utah is still getting beat by any team with a pulse. If they're losing all the hard games, and only surviving by feasting on the worst the conference has to offer, then no one can say this team has made strides and the coaching staff, which I continue to believe gets a pass for this season, will feel the pressure and those excuses will become flat.
If Utah is to prove it can be a competitive and solid Pac-12 program, it begins next year. If it really was just a lack of experience and some scarcity of talent, we all should expect at least some positive momentum in 2013. If, though, a year from now, we're still rehashing the same problems we've faced this season, then maybe an overhaul is in order.