We've already gone over how difficult it is to win in the Pac-12, so, how can Utah overcome that difficulty to finish with a winning record - and is the possibility too much of a stretch?
I've maintained I'm entering 2013 with caution after last year and that probably won't change between now and August. I'm not sold on this year's Utes, though, I'll happily admit I do see the potential for a solid, surprising season ... even if I'm not on board with the idea of it happening just yet.
But that doesn't change the fact I want Utah to succeed. There is nothing fun about cheering for a program struggling through the process and Lord knows we've had our share with the basketball team these past few seasons, we don't need the addition of football. So, I am looking for progress and improvement in 2013 and I believe there are things the Utes can do to climb out of the Pac-12 South cellar and contend for a bowl game again.
What I would like to see from this year's Utes will certainly help define this year's team ... but also the program going forward. That latter point is more important than any season result because it's entirely about the future of Utah football. Where will they position themselves on the Pac-12 totem pole? I think this year will go along way toward answering where the Utes find themselves - even if it doesn't absolutely answer that overall question.
For Utah to succeed long-term in the conference, they're going to have to prove they're a legitimate threat to defeating the top programs in the conference. So far, I do not believe they've done this. So, what I would like to see this season is at least one victory over a solid Pac-12 program - a team that actually does finish with a winning record and that's something that has eluded Utah since joining the conference.
The good news is that the Utes will have ample opportunity for such a victory - whether it's home games against Oregon State, UCLA, Stanford and Arizona State, or road games against USC and Oregon. Now, I'm not asking Utah win all those games, or even half those games, but if they could win one or two, I think it would prove a lot about the program's position because right now, I don't sense that any of those teams fear Utah and, really, why should they? Sure, the Utes managed to beat the Beavers and Bruins in 2011 - but those two programs are entirely different today than they were two years ago. ASU has just absolutely dominated the Utes since they joined the conference and USC and Oregon are still USC and Oregon. It's this season Utah exert itself into the Pac-12 picture by truly proving it can go blow to blow with a great deal better programs.
Take last year. Arizona, coming off a losing season, with a new coaching staff, went 8-5. Rich Rodriguez's first season was very similar to Utah's first season in the Pac-12. The biggest difference is that the Wildcats upset a top-ten USC team at home. Nothing the Utes have done in the Pac-12 comes close to that type of victory and it's given the program a jolt of success so that they're now thrown around as a legitimate Pac-12 South contender. That win, a week after they defeated Washington, really proves my point on this - you're only really as good as the teams you beat. Utah needs to step up in that regard if they're ever going to be taken seriously because, unfortunately, there just isn't a Pac-12 win that turns heads. At least nothing on the level of Arizona beating USC or Washington or Washington beating Stanford and Oregon State last year.
That has to change. If it does, if Utah can grab one or two solid conference wins, they'll be better positioned to succeed in this conference and 8-5 should be the goal - if not more depending on how many of those bigger wins they pick up throughout the season. But if they're still going to struggle against winning teams (the Utes are 0-9 against above .500 Pac-12 teams), all bets are off and this season will be every bit the struggle last year's was.
But it doesn't end there. The second thing I would like to see from Utah is a Pac-12 road win against a team other than Washington State. This isn't a knock on the Cougars, and certainly, if Utah finishes 7-6 and their only conference road win is against Wazzu, I'll happily take it, but again, it would be nice to build some consistency in that regard. Now, oddly, in 2011, the Utes were not bad on the road - they owned wins over BYU, Pittsburgh, Arizona and Washington State. Those are four solid away from home victories, even if the teams they beat weren't. Not only that, we all remember how close they came to sending their contest against the Trojans into overtime. So, two years ago, outside one game (against Cal), Utah was pretty competitive on the road. And to their benefit, they were also fairly competitive on the road last season too against UCLA, Oregon State and Colorado. The only games that weren't entirely too competitive came against Arizona State and Washington - two teams Utah has yet to defeat in the Pac-12.
So, I do believe there is a precedence to expect at least the potential for a solid road win. I think the best shot is probably at Arizona, with USC the next logical chance (I'm not even going to talk about Oregon). If they can steal just one of those games, with the addition of a potential victory over Washington State, this could be a very good season. But this point isn't imperative, outside the Utes at least needing one road conference win to probably finish with a solid record. It would just be nice as we bully our way to Pac-12 respect. I guarantee you the fastest way you get that respect in this conference is by going on the road and winning - something that is not easily done, no matter how good the team.
It reasons if you want success on the road, you also want success at home and that's the third thing I would like to see. Utah was a very average 2-2 at home in Pac-12 games last year. Those two losses were potential wins and games the Utes led for a respectable amount of time, including entering the fourth quarter leading 24-17 over Arizona. The first, against USC, would have killed two birds on this list with one stone - grabbing that impressive win (the Trojans had a solid ranking at the time) and nearly guaranteeing the team a bowl bid through winning at home. It didn't happen and because it didn't happen, everything came down to that Arizona game and we all know how that turned out.
Now I get it's not possible to ask the Utes to go undefeated at home. In fact, over the last two seasons, they're just 4-5 in Pac-12 games at Rice-Eccles Stadium, so, clearly it's tough to not only win on the road ... but also in your home stadium. Still, the expectations should always be to finish above .500 here and we haven't in conference play since joining the Pac-12. That has been the difference between A) a winning season in 2012 and B) winning the Pac-12 South in 2011. Home games always give you an advantage and it's imperative they use that advantage because winning less than .500 at home puts a great deal more pressure on Utah winning on the road. Not an easy feat for any team, especially one in Utes' position.
Of course, you can position yourself better by having success in the out of conference schedule and that's the fourth thing I'd like to see from Utah this season - defeat Utah State, BYU and Weber State. The Utes lost to the Aggies last season and it cost 'em a bowl bid. So, it shows just how important it is to succeed in out of conference play. I think we can all agree if Utah starts the season 0-1, the chances of a comeback and a bowl bid are pretty bleak - it's even worse if they fall to both USU and BYU.
That doesn't mean all these games are must-wins, because as the Utes showed last season, it's still possible to come back from a 2-1 out of conference record and position yourself for a bowl bid. It's just easy, however, and, as last year proved, you can't count on Utah to pull back from the brink every single time. A 3-0 record there against instate teams would be huge and significantly improve their bowl picture and doing that might prove to be the most important progress we see between 2012 and 2013.
If that all happens, it should give Utah a winning season and that's the final, and most important, thing I would like to see from 2013's Utes. We need a winning season. This program hasn't had back-to-back losing seasons since 1989 and 1990 - at the end of the Jim Fassel era and the beginning of the Ron McBride one. That's a long time. So long, in fact, most players on the team weren't even alive at that point (I bet that makes you feel old).
I don't want to see that happen. The last thing this program needs is an even rockier foundation to their start in this conference. It's easy to settle in at the bottom in the BCS and remain there for a prolonged period of time. One season doesn't mean a lick - two or three starts a trend and if that happens, if we're talking the potential of back-to-back-to-back losing seasons this time next year, then we're in trouble.
Fortunately, I think the fact Utah was competitive in most their games last season means they're far closer to success than Cal and Colorado and Washington State. It's why I suspect we're probably closer to the Arizonas and Oregon States of the world than we are the typical BCS cellar-dwellers. But that doesn't mean we're close enough to be good and in a tough conference like the Pac-12, the difference between 5-7 and 7-5 is still pretty small.
That's why the seasons are almost always decided in the margins. In 2011, Utah successfully navigated 'em. They didn't last year. Can they in 2013?