It is game week.
After months and weeks of discussion and prognostications, we've officially hit the start of the 2013 college football season. Soak it up, folks, because after Thursday, there is no turning back.
This is probably the most nervous and uncertain I've been heading into the start of a season. Most years, even when not much was expected out of Utah, I talked myself into believing things would be all right and that a successful season only seemed like the logical conclusion. Not so today. That uncertainty has led to larger nerves and a realization that so much is at stake this year and if Utah, like last season, just happens to come up short, the conclusion will be as muddled and unclear as it's ever been with the football program.
I trust Kyle Whittingham. I believe he will get this ship righted and eventually, we'll look back at 2012 as just a bad, nasty dream and nothing more. I believe, when it's all said and done, he's still the coach who went 13-0 and delivered the program its best season in school history. And yet, here I am, still having some doubt.
Much of it, I think, is that Utah will be tested right out of the gate. I had doubts last year, namely revolving around Jordan Wynn's injuries and the ability of Brian Johnson to successfully call plays, but that didn't mean much against Northern Colorado. No one expected the Utes to actually lose that game or even find themselves in a dogfight. It was, even before kickoff, a formality - Utah would win and we'd still have just as many questions after the game as we did prior to it.
The season, really, wouldn't begin until week three against BYU. Okay, so we were wrong in that expectation (USU surprised, and drove us back down to reality a week later), but it wasn't all or nothing, really, right from the start.
And though there will be eleven other contests on the Utes' schedule, and I won't ever write off this year's team if they do lose Thursday night, I still realize how much rides on a game like this. It has the ability to define the season, shape its course and either set up Utah for success or failure. Not often, especially lately, has the first game of the season held that much potential for the program. It last happened in 2010 against Pittsburgh, an overtime victory that set up quite a run before the Utes eventually flamed out against TCU in November.
But we at least knew Utah would probably be a decent team that season and they were. We like to joke about how disappointing that team turned out, but for a brief period, they looked like a legitimate threat to bust the BCS and, on entertainment value alone, provided most fans with some extremely exciting, high-scoring contests. There hasn't been much of that the last two seasons.
So, this isn't just a game against a Northern Colorado or Montana State. Utah is starting their season against a fringe top-25 team that won 11 games last year, brings much of that talent back, and only now stands as a 2.5 dog on the road in a stadium they haven't won at in sixteen years.
They're absolutely a threat and I'm not going to dismiss the Aggies because of history or perception. They beat us last year and they can beat us again.
Oddly, I know this because of history.
In 1996, Utah opened the season with a tough and controversial loss to Utah State in Logan. The team was absolutely disparaged it and Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala was left with a bruised, and painful groin after Aggie players had punched him, by his account, at least five times there. The awful, perplexing and disappointing defeat was quickly dubbed 'groin-gate' by the Salt Lake media.
When 1997 rolled around, and Utah was set to open the season at home against Utah State, the talk solely centered around revenge. The players wanted it and so did the coaches. What had happened to Ma'afala became the team's rallying cry and they weren't about to get pushed around two years in a row, especially in their stadium, by the smaller, less impressive state college to the north.
But they were. Utah kicked off the '97 season with another damaging loss to those same Aggies. It also solidified John L. Smith, who would leave later that season to coach Louisville, as the most successful USU coach against Utah in about a half-century.
Prior to Gary Andersen's arrival in 2009, no coach could touch Smith's success there and while Andersen, like Smith, has left for greener pastures, he proved victory is possible in Logan. Now it's up to his successor, Matt Wells, to continue that success.
Of course, that's no small order. Just ask Dave Arslanian, Mick Dennehy and Brent Guy - three coaches who followed Smith's mini-run of success there and failed.
I don't think Wells will experience near the disappointment of those three coaches, but then again, can he live up to the accomplished Andersen? That remains to be seen. USU faces a brutal schedule this season and it's entirely possible, even if they're at the level of last year's team, they take a gigantic step back and win only six or seven regular season games. The move to the Mountain West will certainly bolster the program, as twirling aimlessly in the WAC was not a recipe for even moderate success, but in the short run, it could prove problematic - even if most in the media feel confident they'll contend with BSU for the Mountain Division.
What would losing out of the gate to the Utes do for the Aggie morale when we've spent an entire year hearing how much better they are as a program right now than Utah?
But really, that isn't our problem. I don't care what Utah State does between the 30th and whenever our two teams meet again. The only game on their schedule that concerns me happens this Thursday and while it is obviously important for them, as they look to claw their way up the state's ladder, it's just as important for the Utes.
If 2013 is going to prove successful, if they're going to get back to postseason play, they need to win this one. It really doesn't get much simpler than that because, as difficult as USU's schedule is this season, Utah's is infinitely worse.
The Aggies can afford to lose to Utah. They're not going to be pulled from bowl contention if, after week one, they're 0-1. Unless there is a miracle out there for the Utes, though, they most definitely won't be bowling again this year if they can't grab a victory this Thursday.
So, a lot is on the line. That feeds our fears. We're not just watching our team line up against another outmatched FCS opponent. This is the real deal. In a way, I'm glad it's happening this way. I'd much rather know what direction this season is heading one week into the season than having to wait two or three more.
I want to see if Travis Wilson really has what it takes to lead this offense. I want to see who's going to step up and replace John White IV. I want to see if this offensive line is as improved as the coaches have been saying all summer. I want to see whether the defense can come together. I want to see if Dennis Erickson can realistically turn around Utah's offense.
But most importantly, I just want to see Utah win. That's all that matters, right? I don't care how it's done - just make sure it's done.
Let's start the 2013 season off right. Let's restore order. Let's go beat the Aggies.