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Expectations for 2013: The Oregon State game

Utah will jump into conference play the third week of the season and look to buck recent history with a strong start. Can they against a solid Oregon State team at home?

Steve Dykes

I have skipped the Weber State game because ... well, I'm sure you can figure out why.

Over the past two seasons, the Utes haven't exactly jumped into conference play successfully - starting 0-4 both times. That slow start has certainly played a role in why the program has taken a couple steps back since joining the conference and they'll look to change that this season with a big third week conference match against the improved Oregon State Beavers.

If Utah wants to be the 2013 version of Oregon State, they're going to have to beat 2013's Oregon State and this game should ultimately help establish what direction the program is heading for this season. I think we all can concede that a winning campaign pretty much only gets off the ground with wins over Utah State and the Beavers and if they can't do at least that, the prospects of a bowl game quickly become pretty bleak.

This is an interestingly timed game. Utah plays Weber State (I'm assuming a win) the week before and then BYU a week later. Unlike the last two years, the Utes won't be entering Pac-12 play on the heels of a Holy War and that might actually help the team focus a bit in getting off to a hot start. Something that is imperative to the success of this season.

But Oregon State is also a very good team. It's odd to say that when, this time last year, most everyone assumed they would be one of the worst Pac-12 teams, and yet here we are after a very solid 2012 from Mike Riley's Boys. I mentioned already that Utah is auditioning to being this year's Beavers and of course, that means they're looking to be the 2013 surprise conference team - one that is universally overlooked and that bursts onto the scene with a fairly impressive upset win. They have the first part down (being underestimated) and the Oregon State game most definitely could act as that second part - a notice that the program might be better than most any in the national and local media expected.

It's interesting that today, 5 Dimes Sports Book put the over/under for Utah at 5.5 wins. Not exactly a show of confidence for a team that, this point last year, was floated around as potentially a Pac-12 South champion. But for the Utes to get to that over, to return to a bowl game, it's hard for me to envision a scenario without a victory at home against the Beavers. I guess it could play out differently, and I shouldn't expect anything after the last two years, but it seems like common sense that this game is going to help define what type of team Utah is in 2013.

Fortunately, Oregon State is a winnable game - especially at home. I don't think the Utes played all that badly against the Beavers a year ago in Corvallis, though they did eventually end up losing 21-7. This was a game they only trailed 14-7 entering the fourth quarter and appeared to have momentum late in the third when Travis Wilson found Jake Murphy for an 18 yard touchdown pass that really got them back into it. The rally never resulted in a tie game, but for a portion of the second half, Utah actually was in it and that, at the time, was pretty impressive when you consider it was only Wilson's second start all-time and, more importantly, on the road against the 8th ranked and undefeated Beavers - who, if you remember, had defeated BYU 42-24 down at LaVell Edwards Stadium a week prior.

It wasn't a moral victory. I didn't take solace in the fact Utah kept it close for pretty much the entire contest. But that was one constant about last year's team that does give me hope for this year's - namely they were competitive in a whole host of their losses (USU, USC, UCLA, Oregon State and Arizona). The idea here being, of course, that they're able to turn a few of those close losses, or at least a couple, into wins this season.

Oregon State remains, whether realistic or not, one of those best shots.

Utah actually finished last year's game with 307 total offensive yards, which was better than Oregon State (227) overall. Wilson, though, did have two interceptions, which really made the chance at winning extremely challenging. But much is forgiven when, again, you realize it was only his second start and also happened in rainy weather.

Wilson would eventually take the blame for the loss and Utah would move on to win two in a row, temporarily salvaging their season, before dropping the next two to lose their bowl eligibility.

They'll need to be more consistent this season, and in this game, to win and make that bowl eligibility push.

As for the Beavers, they're not going to sneak up on anyone again this year. That might have been an added benefit in 2012 because most didn't realistically think they were a threat - even after their upset win over Wisconsin. It didn't really start to sink in that this team was legit until, I think, that dominant victory over the Cougars in Provo.

So, is Utah going to take Oregon State's place as the surprise Pac-12 team or will the Beavers continue to build on what they started last year and just extend their success over the Utes to two games?

The path Utah takes in 2013 will surely be ties to either outcome.