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Big game mystique quickly vanishing from Utah football

Kyle Whittingham built his reputation as the underdog with a bite. Unfortunately, the past few seasons, the underdog has been bitten far more than we'd like.

George Frey - Getty Images

During their time in the Mountain West Conference, the Utah Utes quickly established themselves as BCS slayers. They had, at one point, more wins against the BCS than any other non-BCS program. That reputation was solidified when the team busted the BCS in 2004 and 2008.

Kyle Whittingham is very much a part of that success. As Utah's head coach, from 2005 to 2010, he was 11-5 against BCS foes ... a pretty impressive record. Some of those victories included Georgia Tech in the Emerald Bowl, #11 UCLA, Michigan in the Big House and Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. While certainly not top-level programs universally, in many of those games, the Utes entered as the underdog and left victorious.

This success, that ability to dominate higher-level opponents, made it so that you could never, ever count out a Kyle Whittingham team. If you add his success against BYU into the mix, you further strengthen that narrative. For so long, Utah football, even under Ron McBride, came to play in important games and though they sometimes lost, at least they generally held their own - as was the case when what turned out to be a 5-6 Utah team went to Ann Arbor and almost defeated Michigan in 2002.

That mystique led to confidence that no matter how bad the Utes looked, or how overwhelmed things might seem, in important games, in big games, you always felt they would show up. That's something Urban Meyer carried over from McBride and Whittingham from Meyer. It's that type of success that really put the Utes on the map. It was those wins that turned heads and elevated the program ... like when, in his first season, Meyer led Utah to wins over the Pac-10's Cal & Oregon.

For the most part, as I've said, Whittingham has not only kept that trend, but actually grown it. The most impressive win in Utah football history happened under his leadership and it continued, really, through the 2009 season and through parts of the 2010 season. But something happened two seasons ago that I think shook this program and unfortunately, though I hate saying it, I don't feel we've been able to find our balance since.

Utah lacks swagger.

We were conditioned to believe the Utes would almost always show up for big games and though sometimes things got away from them (UCLA and BSU in '06), on the whole, they almost always put up a fight. Even in the TCU blowout of '09, the team wasn't so overcome that they didn't at least produce something. While the defense struggled, the offense shined, at least somewhat, and kept an ugly game from looking even uglier. Yes, they lost 28-55 - but the fact the offense managed 28 points against a fierce defense like the Frogs was an accomplishment in and of itself. We might've been devastated and crushed by the loss that night, but in the entire scheme things, when that season shook out, it wasn't nearly as bad as it looked.

That was the last season the Utes really were competitive in pretty much every game of the season. You'll remember their first loss of that season came on the road against an Oregon Ducks team that eventually would win the Pac-10 and play in the Rose Bowl. Utah lost that game 24-31 and very well could have won it had it not been for some mistakes by Terrance Cain late in the game. Their other loss came on the road in overtime to BYU, who was probably more talented and certainly more experienced that season than Utah.

But like I said, something changed in 2010. While they started out well, and had some impressive wins over BCS programs (including a victory over 15th ranked Pitt to start the season and then a blowout victory over an improving Iowa State team on the road), things kind of came crashing down against TCU. Unlike the year prior, where the offense showed some signs of life, the Utes rolled over, on both sides of the ball, and were laughed off their home field in a 7-47 loss. At that moment, every ounce of swagger Utah had, every bit of the mystique they established the past decade or so, diminished remarkably. A week later, on the road against Notre Dame, they again failed to show up and lost to, at the time, a very underwhelming Irish team that had, a couple weeks earlier, lost to Tulsa at home.

Granted, Utah bounced back and beat BYU in a very ugly, low scoring contest, but the season ended with another blowout loss ... this time to Boise State in the Las Vegas Bowl.

2010 was sobering, but only in retrospect. I think we all dismissed much of that struggle because of Jordan Wynn's injury and the fact that maybe the team mailed it in after they lost the TCU game because of what was on the horizon (an invitation to the Pac-12). 2011, though, reinforced it in some ways. Though this team went down to Southern California and went toe-to-toe with the Trojans, and then a week later beat up on BYU, they also were routed in losses to Washington, Arizona State and Cal. In another big game, albeit against a bad opponent, Utah completely face planted against Colorado.

This season already, we've had two big games (an in-stater against USU and Arizona State) go badly for the Utes. Last Saturday's game, more depressingly, sticks out because of just how thoroughly awful Utah looked. Whittingham swears he had his team ready, and maybe they were, but again, and I can't help but go back to this, the Utes lacked swagger ... and confidence.

That's perplexing to me because this team has always had swagger. Even under McBride, mostly due to Whittingham's defenses, they had swagger and an us against the world mentality. That doesn't seem to exist anymore. For whatever reason, since the 2010 season, there doesn't seem to be that urgency anymore. This program looks as if it's softened and that concerns me.

Fortunately, I've seen glimmers of hope. As I said, the USC game last year showed that this team could compete with some elite teams. They also got their act together in the Sun Bowl and even this season, managed to knock off BYU as an underdog. But when it counts, in terms of important conference games, we're still waiting for that old Utah team to walk in and give the opposing team their best punch.

That should have been Saturday. When ASU scored, torching the defense, the Utes should have come right back and torched theirs ... showing they weren't intimidated. But they didn't. 7-0 quickly turned to 21-0 and then the game was over.

That mystique of big games appears gone from the program. I don't know, maybe I'm overstating this, but it just seems as if something is off. This does not look like a Whittingham coached team ... this does not look like Utah football. They're soft and play scared and though they talk a good talk, flaunt their stuff on social media, they're no longer an underdog with a bite ... they're now the ones being bitten.

USC is going to be an interesting game because while I don't anticipate Utah winning, the fight in this team very much could determine where we're going as a Pac-12 team. I don't want to see the Utes roll over and fade early against the Trojans next week and I certainly don't expect the defense to get as shredded as they did down in Tempe.

You know, this is gut check time. Utah football is better than this and they can't come out next Thursday passive and soft ... they've got to come out ready to ball. They've got to come out with fight. They've got to show some of that old swagger because, for whatever reason, it's been missing these past couple seasons ... and dammit, I want it back.