Believe it or not, I am not terribly angry or disappointed over Thursday night's game. UCLA is a legitimate top-fifteen team, maybe even top-ten, and we handled 'em about as well as we could have ever hoped ... without winning, of course. Sure, the miscues and Travis Wilson turnovers hurt, and certainly changed the dynamics of the game, but on the whole, I don't think Utah looked outmatched Thursday night. That is an improvement and shows just how close the program really is to turning a corner and becoming a legit Pac-12 player.
The problem with Thursday goes beyond the fact they lost (we all knew this was a possibility). The problem, at least as I see it, is they've now dropped two winnable conference games in a row at home. That's brutal and a big reason why, right now, this team isn't a lock for the postseason or even the Most Improved Team of the year. I hate sayin' it, as we all spent this past summer suggesting the possibility, but the Utes have yet to achieve the status of this year's Oregon State.
So, while I don't feel angry or disappointed by Thursday's outcome, when you couple it with the overtime loss to the Beavers, it only reinforces a concern I've had about Utah since they joined the Pac-12 - they're not getting it done at home.
This conference is tough. Because it's tough, you've got to take advantage of your own home field because, unless you're the elite of the elites, you're not likely going to find too much success on the road. That means teams like Utah can't afford to also drop games at home - not when the margins for a winning season are razor thin.
With their back-to-back conference home losses, the Utes have now put themselves in the position where, unless they somehow find a way to upset Stanford (also at home), they'll need to salvage the season on the road - either against Arizona or USC. That's not an enviable situation for Utah, because, as we've witnessed since joining the conference, it's not easy winning on the road. Especially against good teams.
The ugly fact about all of this is that the Utes are 4-7 at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Pac-12 games. In 2011, their shot at the Pac-12 South division title was lost on the field of our own stadium. A year later, on that same field, Utah saw their bowl hopes die against Arizona. That pattern has kept the program in neutral at best and defined it since joining the conference.
Utah has seven games left in their season. Only three of those games are at home and one, this Saturday against Stanford, is probably one that is not likely to be a victory. That leaves Arizona State and Colorado - two important, imperative wins. Even then, it puts 'em a game short of making a bowl game. Unless they #shockstanford this weekend, it's impossible to find the needed victories for the postseason in each remaining home game. There just aren't enough. So, like I said, it means they'll now need to come back and do it on the road - find that one victory against Arizona, USC or Washington State, that gets 'em to bowl eligibility.
Is it possible? Sure. Do I feel good about their chances? Yes. But not good enough to believe it's certain, especially with how the Wildcats have looked under Rich Rodriguez and the quick ascent of Mike Leach's Cougars. USC is the wildcard, a team that absolutely has not looked good this season, so bad they are, in fact, they've fired their head coach. Yet the talent there is still good enough to produce a winning team and, under the right coach, could do that this season. While Ed Orgeron did not do well in his stint as head coach of Ole Miss, he also is working with a lot better personnel, and right now, we just don't know how good, or bad, they really could be the remainder of the season.
But unless Utah nabs one of those road games, 2013 will end just like 2012. Then we're left questioning the position of this program because, like last year and the year before that, the Utes couldn't figure out how to win at home.
This needs to change. Right now, I see it as the biggest hurdle to overcome for this team, even though it should be the easiest. Maybe it's the biggest because it should be the easiest. Let's be honest, there is no excuse for their current home conference record. It's not good and it's holding 'em back. It's also put them in a bad spot this season.
Will they be able to change that with some big wins on the road?
Or will this season just be a replay of last year's?
Of course, this can all change if they #shockstanford Saturday.