I know most Utah fans expect a bowl game and that alone would probably make 2013 a successful season - even if that bowl game comes on the heels of a 6-6 season and takes us to New Mexico. So, maybe that's where this question begins and ends. Though, I think it's deeper than that because there is a good amount of fans who don't believe a bowl game is in the cards for the Utes this season, or at least the potential for postseason is extremely unlikely solely because of the schedule that has been put in front of them.
It makes sense.This season, Utah will probably have one of the hardest schedules in college football and even if they've made improvements, that all could be negated by tougher opponents and harder to win games. It's why so many national writers are so down on the Utes' potential this season. So, from the context of an incredibly hard schedule, would 2013 automatically be deemed a failure without a bowl game?
I've maintained I do not believe the program can afford a losing season. This is just too important of a period where we're not only trying to rebound from last year's disappointing season - we're also trying to position ourselves in the ever evolving Pac-12. It's important to remember that Utah still has an extremely limited history in this conference and because of that, because there isn't necessarily history to point to as a guide to the future, it does feel as if the program is starting over from scratch even though they have built a pretty consistent history over the last two decades. I say this, of course, because we're now creating our position in the Pac-12 hierarchy and each additional season will help establish just what kind of program we may become in our new conference.
I've said it in the past, it didn't matter what Utah did in the Mountain West, they would always be considered one of the better programs. Even in down years. It's not he same in the Pac-12. There are just too many superior, or at least superior in potential, programs for the Utes to slag off for too long before it inevitably becomes their lot in life. Washington State is still trying to rebuild out of the hole both Bill Doba and Paul Wulff dug them and you could make the claim they were on better footing before it all went to hell than the Utes currently. For the Cougars, it's been an uphill battle because, historically, they've still fought back certain perceptions that don't necessarily dog their rivals to the west in Seattle. Salt Lake might benefit better in perception than a place like Pullman, but I guarantee you we're probably closer in that perception than to places like Seattle and Tempe - areas where it can't be all that difficult to recruit to.
So, teams like Oregon State and Utah and even Arizona, programs located in less desirable, or more questionable, cities, don't necessarily fall into the talent quite like UCLA or Washington or Arizona State might because it's easier to convince a kid to play there than it is to play in unknown, uniform Utah. I mean, all you have to do is take a look at the Huskies' recruiting over the last few years. They certainly haven't done anything spectacular under Steve Sarkisian. He's proven infinitely better than Ty Willingham, of course, but it doesn't change the fact that, in four seasons, his ceiling still seems to remain seven games. Washington has gone 7-6 each of the last three seasons and their overall mark the last two years is only different than Utah's by one game. By almost all accounts, the Huskies haven't proven that much better than the Utes - except on two major measures: they're actually 2-0 against the Utes and they've done incredibly well in recruiting.
In this year's recruiting cycle, the Huskies hauled in the 3rd best Pac-12 class. It was also the 18th best nationally. Utah ultimately finished this recruiting class 9th in the Pac-12 and 44th overall. Much of this recruiting was established prior to the Utes' losing season and this year's class, which remains obviously unsettled, will be directly impacted by last year's 5-7 campaign. We don't know the extent that will have, though I'm at least a bit optimistic today that maybe the impact will be less than it could have been, but it's still likely Washington is going to finish with a better overall class ranking than the Utes.
They're able to do that, despite their often mediocre overall records, because it's still Washington. Seattle is a top-flight western city and the draw of that program has proven strong enough to overcome the fact they've yet to pull out from the Oregon (or now Stanford) shadows. If they start to win, which might happen this season, it's not hard seeing the Huskies build themselves into a true national contender - especially with their new, gorgeous stadium.
Utah lacks many of those advantages. As much as the perception has changed, the program is still fighting it and their success is what mostly fuels their ability to recruit. In a way, that can be said for every program, but there is a reason Washington State has not been a consistent force in the Pac-10/12, even though they've been to the Rose Bowl more recently than their rival Washington. So, you have to win to stay relevant. The Utes don't have the luxury of just recruiting on their name or their prestige. And because we're still building our foundation in a conference that we've only been a member of now two seasons, everything is still new and because it's new, it's also uncertain and that uncertainty can prove to be the driving force behind what defines the Utes heading into 2014 and beyond.
If that sounds like a big detour from the point at hand, what Utah needs to do for this to be considered a successful season, let me wrap it back around to the point I'm trying to make. Everything going forward is going to tell us what we can and cannot do in this conference. If the Utes have another losing season, it might not spell doom for the program in the short term (certainly no one can claim to know what the long term will look like for Utah), but the way it happens just may continue to raise questions that, unfortunately, this coaching staff just might not be able to answer.
So, for me, I concede that this season might not be considered a failure if they do finish a game below .500 for a consecutive year. But it won't change the fact that, for reasons I touched on already, I will be concerned about our position and whether we'll be able to pull out of this growing losing mentality. Still, and this might sound counter to everything I've already said, I believe there might be more than just wins and losses at this stage. The Utes are still building their identity and one thing Washington has on them, beyond the head-to-head, is a collection of impressive victories they've built up under Sarkisian. In his first season, a year after the Huskies went winless, he was able to coach them to a program-defining upset over #3 USC. That year, Washington finished with a losing season, but because of that win, there was hope for a flailing program that a year earlier had solidified itself as the worst BCS team in college football.
Sark has also been able to knock off Stanford, who was undefeated and ranked 8th and Oregon State, who also was undefeated and ranked 7th. Those wins defined their season last year and really helps establish an identity that even though they haven't done anything collectively spectacular, Washington is still a team no one wants to play.
Utah has to become that team ... even if it takes a losing season. So, yes, a bowl game is the best measure of success in 2013. But the next best measure is whether or not the Utes throw their weight around a bit and bully some of the bullies in this conference.
Over the last two years, they haven't done that. Their list of impressive Pac-12 wins is nonexistent. I guess you can throw UCLA in for pity's sake, but how well does that hold up when they finished with a losing record and fired their head coach? Every other major game they've played has been a loss and that has to change - especially this season with the amount of tough opponents they have on their schedule.
If Utah finishes 5-7 again with wins over Utah State, BYU, Weber State, Washington State and Colorado, I don't know how anyone could consider that a successful season or reasonable because of the schedule. It wouldn't be. It would play into the same problems that have plagued the Utes since they joined the Pac-12 - namely they just can't win the important games.
But let's say they do finish with a losing season. It wouldn't be ideal, obviously, but what if that losing season came with a loss to BYU but an upset over Stanford? Maybe they lose on the road in Pullman, but beat Arizona State? Then it would be harder to consider that season a total disappointment because I think you could use it as proof the program is growing and trying to make that next step.
That's why I'm not one to advance this scheduling excuse alone. It might play a role in Utah's struggles, but if they truly are improved over last year's team, it should show in at least one solid win ... even if the inconsistencies of inexperience ultimately cost them a shot at a winning season.
Last year, they didn't finish with a losing season because they were inconsistent. They were consistently bad and that was ultimately the reason behind it. There was no surprise win in the Pac-12 and every time they went up against the best the conference has to offer, they went down. I think I would've felt far more satisfied last season had the Utes upset USC and then lost to Cal because then it would indicate to me that they're capable of winning those bigger games and that maybe it was more about inconsistency and youth than overall talent.
That's what I want from this season. Because it will be hard to find hope in 2014 if the Utes' best win is either BYU or Utah State. No offense to those programs, and certainly I'll take those victories, but there has to be more. I want a good, solid, impressive Pac-12 win that puts the conference on notice that we're legitimately a game they should be concerned over. Right now, though, I doubt you'll find most fans that look at the Utah game and think it's a potential loss. I know Arizona State fans aren't thinking that. Neither are USC fans or Stanford fans or Arizona fans. There is a reason for that - the Utes just haven't given them reason to fear 'em.
Let's change that in 2013. If they do, I will consider this season a success.