It's hard to say Utah hasn't improved over last year's team. This game perfectly illustrates those improvements, as, like the contest down in Tucson last month, the Runnin' Utes actually had a chance to win. Yet, when it's all said and done, the improvement that matters the most, the won/loss record, won't be significant and, sadly, it looks like Utah is probably looking at no more than an extra win compared to last year's conference record.
This is how difficult it is to rebuild in the Pac-12 and it just goes to show how far back Utah is from being even a good team in this conference. Sure, some will look at the results and say they're close, and you know what? Maybe they are. But I think the frustrating part is the fact to win, even against generally average teams, the Utes need a near-perfect game. It's threading the needle just right and, unfortunately, that's hard to do on a consistent basis. When it comes to talent, Utah is just not in the same league as a team like Arizona - who, while good, is probably not a top-ten team.
I don't want to sound like I'm diminishing the strides the Utes have made, but it is important to realize how many strides we have left. Hopefully that comes next season, but right now, Utah is kind of just hanging around. I've said as much in the past and still believe it - whether good or bad, the Utes are kinda stuck in limbo. They're not devastatingly bad like last year's team, but they're also not at the point where they can push forward into the middle of the PAC. Hopefully, like I said, that comes next season. But at the moment, they are one of the worst teams in a conference dominated with parity and that really makes it hard to break through because, from top-to-bottom, I think this conference is good. I guess outside Oregon State and Washington State, two teams that actually beat Utah, the talent level, while not necessarily even across the board, is generally comparable and that makes it harder because the team just above Utah, Washington, is probably a fairly few paces ahead of the Utes. Yes, I know Utah beat 'em, but on the whole, it's hard to make the case the Utes are on the same level ... let alone better.
That's why next season I hope this team finally makes that leap. I'm not saying they'll contend for the PAC, they won't, but I do believe they can push their way into the murky middle and when they do that, they should be able to put together a win against one of the elite teams in the conference.
But right now, it's just too much to ask. They've kept it close (and in some instances, kept it close last year), but they're not good enough to beat the UCLAs and Arizonas of the world. They might be good enough to knock off a team with lesser talent, the likes of Colorado and Washington, but that's about all they're good for this season. And that leaves 'em with another awful conference record and a probable 11th or 12th-place finish.
So, there has been improvement and we saw it today in a very closely contested game. But the gap remains wide and will remain wide until the Utes can win these types of games. At the end of the day, they're still a 3-10 Pac-12 team. Hopefully that record improves the final few weeks, but as much as we see progress in the close losses, the entirety of this rebuilding is established on the foundation of wins. That continues to be the distant star and one we still have yet to reach.