I doubt anyone envisioned Utah's season taking this path in the wake of the Stanford victory. The thought of the Utes not making a bowl game seemed impossible and yet, with three weeks left in the regular season, that is a very real prospect for Utah.
With their one-point loss to Arizona State at home Saturday, the Utes fell to an inexcusable 1-3 at Rice-Eccles Stadium and now must salvage their season on the road - either against Oregon or Washington State. Utah is just 1-6 away from Salt Lake in conference play the last two seasons. That lone win came against a Colorado team that went 1-11 and even then, the Utes needed heroics from Reggie Dunn to get out of Boulder victorious.
If this season is going to end with a bowl invite, they'll now have to do something they have not been able to do much lately in this conference and that's to win a road game. Thanks to losing home contests again Oregon State, UCLA and now Arizona State, all fine and capable opponents, of course, this is the position they find themselves in.
Will they be able to do it these next few weeks? Can Utah somehow find two extra wins?
We probably won't know this week. Yes, hold out hope the Utes can somehow walk into Eugene and stun the Oregon Ducks, but let's be realistic here - Utah winning there would prove one of the biggest upsets in recent college football history. In fact, I'd wager it would equal, all things considered, the upset Stanford pulled on USC back in 2007.
So, the focus is probably their game against Washington State. It's a must-win. It's essentially the season. Lose there, and it won't matter what they do at home in the season finale against Colorado - they're staying home, once again, this holiday season.
Not fun. Not good. Something that can't happen.
It is do or die for the Utes. They need to bounce back impressively and win two more games. But that doesn't mean it will happen, or is even likely to happen. With how inconsistent this team has played all season long, and their inability to find any type of offense the last few weeks, coupled with Travis Wilson's potential injury and the poor line play, any victory is nowhere near a guarantee. In fact, you could make the case Utah faces long odds to get to bowl eligibility.
To be sure, they played well through most their game against Arizona State. The defense kept the Sun Devils in check the entire night and put up an effort that deserved the win. But the fourth quarter, from the offensive perspective, was just atrocious football. And while the Cougars and Buffaloes are far from the type of defensive unit ASU appears to be this season, I see no reason to believe this offense can score, even against their questionable defenses.
It leaves me wondering how Utah is going to pull out two of their final three games. The defense should keep them in both games, and the Utes should beat Colorado - but what about the road game against Washington State? Yeah, they're not looking too hot, either, but again, have you seen Utah's road record? My guess is Cougar fans are probably looking at their game against the Utes as their best shot at victory these closing weeks.
I see nothing from this program to suggest they're wrong.
If Wilson isn't 100%, and I don't believe he is, the problems Utah has experienced these past three games just won't magically go away. Yes, they'll be aided by inferior defenses, but that can only go so far when your offense is a bumbling mess. Just ask 2012's Utes.
These next few weeks will define the 2013 season and establish whether Utah can be seriously taken in the Pac-12. I think they were well on their way prior to their recent implosion, but another losing season is going to do extensive damage - not just to our perception, which certainly could hurt with recruiting, but also the psyche of this team. Mentally, this team is just not tough. They haven't been tough since the Stanford game. I don't know if it was the slew of injuries or what, but Utah looks mentally weak and the only way this season extends beyond the original twelve games is if they figure out how to toughen up.
I don't know if that's possible. But if the Utes can, certainly they'll regain a great deal of the goodwill lost these past few games.
It's gut check time, Utah. Will you stand up or cower?