Utah football enters arguably its most crucial and uncertain period of the last twenty-years and the path it takes will ultimately define its future in the Pac-12. What that path is, however, is almost certainly unclear at this point. Granted, anything involving the future is unclear because, when you get down to it, it hasn't happened yet. But it's not hard to see a trajectory forming - good or bad - and that always helps identify exactly where things are going.
In 2002, the future of Utah football was not known - the fact they would, just two years later, go undefeated and bust the BCS. What we did know is that the program most likely had stagnated under Ron McBride and that while there was the possibility of a winning season in what would be his 13th year here, there was no potential for anything greater. The program had hit its ceiling and though some speculated that McBride was the best Utah could do at the time, Chris Hill took a gamble and fired him and then hired Urban Meyer.
The rest is a fantastic bit of history.
This is not 2002, though. When Hill made that decision to not bring McBride back, Utah football had plateaued. They continually fell short of expectations and the two losing seasons in three years unceremoniously ended the best era the program had seen to that point.
On its face, that may seem similar to what we've witnessed these past two years. The big difference, though, is that McBride's competition from year-to-year stayed roughly the same - whether it was in the old WAC or the original Mountain West. In each season, the Utes entered with the talent and resources to constantly be a top-level program in those conferences. Their albatross was that they rarely, if ever, lived up to that talent and those resources. While McBride had made Utah football into something significant again, they could not take advantage of their standing - whether it was the new 45,000 seat stadium or untapped potential the growing state of Utah offered.
McBride, for all the great things he did, could never win an outright Mountain West title and only won two conference championships during a thirteen season career at Utah. The limitations of his coaching became clear as the Utes often stumbled against lesser Mountain West foes - losing to Wyoming, New Mexico and San Diego State, while being inconsistent against Colorado State and Air Force. No amount of time was going to change that for McBride, and ultimately, after a 5-6 season, which saw the Utes lose six-games in a row for the first time since the mid-80s, McBride was out of a job and Utah transitioned to the wildly successful Urban Meyer.
The way I see it, there was little uncertainty at the time this move was made. Granted, some fans and media personalities suggested the Utes could not do better than Ron McBride - but on the whole, the program was not living up to its position in the Mountain West. There was no excuse for the team to not be a top-three program, year in and year out, and yet, under McBride, in two of the four years he coached in the conference, Utah had an abysmal 3-4 record and finished toward the bottom - even managing to fall behind UNLV in 2000.
Meyer was a tad unproven, having only coached at Bowling Green, but the program was in a position where you anticipated more success than what McBride was able to deliver in his final five or so seasons.
Utah got exactly that - as Meyer went 22-2 in a two-year span.
It's not as clear cut today. It's not clear cut because the situations are vastly different. Whittingham and McBride may share similar trajectories - success and then stagnation - but Whittingham has a different obstacle ahead of him. He has conference transition, the fact the Utes are no longer a team that should dominate its conference - or even finish within the top-three of its own division on a consistent basis. McBride's failures were that he could not elevate Utah to its perceived real place in the Mountain West. Whitt's failures might be tied to his inability to make the Utes competitive in their new conference. Regardless, because this jump has been admittedly tough, it's impossible to compare what Utah was in the Mountain West to what it might be in the Pac-12. We have no history in this conference and that means we've got zero to base anything on except that we perceive Utah is struggling.
That alters things greatly. It alters it because, unlike with McBride, it's unclear what our potential is in the Pac-12. Unfortunately, we can't really answer that question until we fully let things play out and that might require letting this program either develop into something relevant or accepting that relevance now might be limited success and the hope for a great season every decade or so.
This is the uncertainty I speak of. It's not knowing exactly what we should be able to do and instead, focusing only on what we believe we should be able to do.
Whether you support Whittingham or not is irrelevant to this point because both sides probably will concede there is no evidence things will quickly turn around - whether the program moves on from this coaching staff or commits to it. Things become even more muddled when you factor in the potential of Travis Wilson not being able to play next year. Which also means, come 2014, Utah just may be working their way through their third-straight losing season.
For those who support Whitt, their rationale is built around the idea that we need to give him time. It's a fair point, since he's had to do something only a few other coaches have been asked to do - transition your team from one level of college football to the next. It's not an easy task, as both Utah and TCU are quickly finding out, and yet, it's only half the problem.
The other half, the one that consumes the doubts of many, is that you can't really make that successful transition unless you win. Recruiting won't get better solely because you've been a Pac-12 member for two or three or four years. Utah can't sell the idea anymore that they're playing in the Pac-12 because, as we've come to see, much of the talent they need is also being recruited by Pac-12 schools. The playing field is far more spread out in this conference than the Mountain West - when Utah, TCU and BYU constantly produced overwhelmingly better classes than the rest of the conference.
In the Pac-12, as we found out today when Darren Gardenhire, a three-star safety out of California, picked Washington State over the Utes, Utah is battling teams that offer pretty much everything the Utes do and it's why, right now, they're on the verge of pulling in the 11th worst class in the conference. It's why winning is so vital at this level, because it's almost certainly the thing that elevates you over the other equalish programs. It's fair to say that had Utah won Saturdaty, Gardenhire is probably still mulling over his commitment options. They didn't and the fact they couldn't win last season, either, is now impacting recruiting - which will definitely impact Utah's ability to close the talent gap.
And so, we wrap back around to the major point: we want to give Whittingham time to close the talent gap and yet, with him piling up back-to-back losing seasons, it becomes increasingly more difficult to do so.
The damning reality here is that Whittingham does not have an infinite amount of time. He has to figure it out fast or things will only grow bleaker for his, and the team's, prospects.
That only amplifies the uncertainty.
Can Whittingham turn things around? The hope, even among those who have lost faith in his ability, is that he can, and will, right this ship. But the worry, and something I think even those who still believe in Whittingham will admit, is that no one really knows. There are no guarantees anymore. Which certainly only reinforces our fears and drives us to question where things are heading.
Hopefully the doubt is premature and Whittingham gets things figured out.
If not, then 2014 certainly could be his swan song.