Utah's rocky start to conference play the last two seasons has killed their ability to even contend in the Pac-12. The hole they dug themselves in 2011 and 2012 put the team on the brink and, unfortunately, they couldn't overcome that slow start last season - finishing with the program's first losing season in a decade.
So, this Saturday, the Utes will look to do something they've been unable to do since joining the Pac-12 - actually open conference play with a win. How sweet would it be to actually be 1-0 in conference play? It's a feeling we've only experienced in different leagues, and certainly not at the level of a conference like the Pac-12. Sure, it's not likely to last, but it's a position that is infinitely better than what they've faced the last two seasons.
And it's not just the conference opener that has hounded Utah since joining the PAC. Their slow starts have dominated much of their recent struggles and it only seemed to get progressively worse both times before eventually getting better (though, last year, the better was only marginal). So, gaining momentum heading into a crucial stretch of the season is a must. We've seen what slow starts can do to the team's morale and while they were able to bounce back in 2011 to make a bowl game, 2012 is evidence enough that a 0-4 hole is severe.
I want that to change this season. I not only want the Utes to buck their recent history and win their conference opener, I want it to continue further into the first half of the season. Yes, I know, it's going to be tough against UCLA and then Stanford ... but the idea of actually getting somewhere in conference play is exciting. I don't know if I can handle the prospects of another losing Pac-12 season ... especially if it coincides with a 0-4 start.
Win Saturday and momentum will only continue to grow heading into rivalry week. It'll also put Utah fairly close to bowl eligibility (just three wins away) - but more importantly, it'll showcase their ability to actually, you know, start out strong. If they're ever going to be something in this conference, it's imperative they start out conference play strong. It's the only way anyone will take 'em seriously and since this year's conference slate isn't backloaded with losing teams, the potential to climb out of any hole looks about as bleak as it did last year.
That's reason enough to say Saturday is a big game. It's big because a lot is on the line - from bowl contention to conference viability. None of that matters if, like last year and the year before, the Utes open conference play with another loss.
So, now is the time to start exerting our force in this conference. We need to push some teams around and lay claim to the idea that we're not pushovers ourselves. People are skeptically watching, waiting to see if this team has any ability to return to true competitiveness. They might've seen a glimpse of it against USU ... but now comes the true test and whether or not Utah can really go toe-to-toe with its conference mates.
And while a win this weekend won't disarm all criticism, it'll at least lay the potential foundation for a surprisingly good season. Remember, last year, Oregon State came out of nowhere to make some noise - bursting on to the stage with an upset over Wisconsin and then winning those ever important winnable games against the likes of UCLA, Arizona, Washington State, BYU and Utah ... all en route to a 6-0 start.
6-0 is probably not going to happen for the Utes. But 3-0 and then 4-0 and potentially 5-0 would still be in the cards with a win Saturday night.
That's all that matters. Win and move forward. Lose and every doubt we had about this year's team will resurface.