It's pretty clear the Runnin' Utes are improved over last year's six-win team. Right off the bat, you can see it in their win total - as they've won two more games than they did all last season. Sure, some of that was because of an easier schedule, but you can't watch this team without seeing improvement - from their near-win to BYU to their utter demolition of Boise State (who, mind you, hasn't lost since).
But the progress at times has seem limited. As good as a close loss against the Cougars might sound, it's still a loss and, coupled with defeats to Sacramento State and Northridge at home, what could have been is, sadly, replaced with what is - a decent 8-4 record ... but maybe something that should have been a bit more.
Because the Runnin' Utes have sprinkled in some bad, pretty indefensible losses in there, they enter the Pac-12 season with a bit more questions than I think many of us would have liked. Like I said, I felt this team has shown improvement, but because the schedule has been anything but challenging, and with the meltdowns in a handful of games, their potential still seems unclear - is this team capable of pulling itself out of the cellar of the Pac-12, or are they going to mirror last year's often defunct mess?
I wish I could solidly say either way. What I do know is that this team is unlikely to make a push for one of the two major postseason tournaments - whether it's the NCAAs or the NIT. But that's fine. None of us realistically expected as much, anyway, and even when they defeated SMU, and talks fired up about that possibility here, I was quick to dampen them with the understanding that this team still had a long way to go in conference play to prove that possible.
The problem that I'm often running into is that the schedule has been so weak at times that it's really hard to get a feel for where they might place in the Pac-12. It's not like the Pac-12 looks like a killer conference this year, as certain teams like Stanford and Washington, and even UCLA, have struggled a bit - but it's not like the conference was terribly strong last year, either, and that didn't much benefit Utah outside some close defeats.
Right now, the current RealTimeRPI of Utah is 111th - which is probably a dramatic improvement over last year's total. It's also not the worst in the conference, as Utah is ahead of Oregon State, Washington State and USC. That's not terrible. I think a 9th place finish would be serviceable for this program.
But then Ken Pomeroy paints a completely different picture. He ranks Utah 171st and dead last in the Pac-12 - with 11th place USC 44 spots ahead of Utah. That's not much better than last year's outcome.
So, there really isn't a consensus on Utah and their Pac-12 standing. Which I think is perfectly acceptable because the preseason only proved one thing - that Utah has improved ... but it didn't tell us by how much. That, unfortunately, won't be known until probably the halfway point of the conference season.
Hopefully, in the end, this team wins more than three conference games. I don't see how anyone could claim much success for this team if they don't considering that would mirror last year's overall conference record. It should be possible, considering they get USC, Oregon State, Stanford and Arizona State at home. I also think it's possible because of how close many of their games were last year. Sure, it's hard to find many positives in a 3-15 conference record, but if you looked hard enough ... at least one existed and that was the competitiveness in a few games. Though they lost 15, seven of those defeats were by 11 points or less.
That's what I hope to see from this year's team - flipping some of those close losses. If Utah had just managed five wins in those close games last season, they would have finished with a much more respectable eight win conference season. Because they're supposedly improved this year, I've got to think eight wins, while maybe on the higher side, should be at least an attainable goal.
If they do win eight, that puts them at 16 wins and 14 losses entering the tournament. That's a pretty solid improvement and in my eyes, a successful season. I'm not saying it will happen, or that I expect it top happen, but I maintained prior to the start of the season that 15 wins should be our expectation and I stand by that - which is only one less than the 16 wins I outlined there.
But we'll see. Are you satisfied with the results of this year's preseason schedule?