It feels like this season is kind of at a crossroads. While I don't believe the UCLA game is a must-win, at least not near the level as the BYU game from a couple weekends ago, it certainly can shape the path the Utes take for the remainder of the season. In that regard, Thursday night's contest against the Bruins is important.
It's important because, for whatever reason, Utah has struggled against the better programs of the conference - only owning one victory over a Pac-12 team that made a bowl game. Coincidentally, that lone victory came against the same UCLA squad they face this week - albeit, one that was nowhere near as well coached. In that game, the Utes pretty much controlled from start to finish and the loss all but sealed the fate of embattled head coach Rick Neuheisel, who would be fired later that month. Even today, it remains Utah's most impressive conference win and it really wasn't all that impressive anyhow - though, those Bruins did win the Pac-12 South. If you can call it that.
So, for a program still searching for its place in the Pac-12, Thursday offers up a chance to stun a top-fifteen team and reenter the national stage again.
Of course, there is a reason UCLA is a top-fifteen team, and no, it's not like the last time they rolled into Salt Lake highly ranked. This team actually does have talent, and that says nothing of their coaching, which has been outstanding the last two years. They also have an exceptional quarterback in Brett Hundley, who is just as capable of ripping apart Utah's defense as Sean Mannion did a few weeks ago. In fact, it's their offense, which ranks #2 nationally in total offense, that gives me heartburn.
This team is very capable of just tearing the figurative roof off of Rice-Eccles Stadium. They have the offensive firepower to drop a half-hundred with ease and against Utah's still questionable defense, that might actually happen.
Which is why I was surprised to see the Bruins as only 4 point favorites.
Much of that Vegas believin', though, could have something to do with Utah's offense, which ranks 16th in the nation. The turn around the Utes have seen on offense really is the story of the season. It's also reason why every Utah fan should expect at least a fighting chance in most games this season. Thursday, the Utes will certainly need a big game from their defense to win, but it should be the offense that keeps them in it. Like against Oregon State, I would not be surprised if this game has that typical Pac-12 shootout flair.
It should prove exciting ... if Utah's offense can go.
That right there is one key to the game - Travis Wilson has to match Hundley's ability on pretty much every drive. He came close to doing it against Oregon State and Mannion, but this game will be infinitely more tough and three turnovers will probably doom them to a blowout loss.
All of this leads me to wonder how this week will turn out. While I do see victory as being attainable for the Utes, I also understand just how difficult it will be to win a game like this. It won't be easy. It'll take a near perfect game all around for Utah to not only stay in it, but also have a chance. And yet, I think it's absolutely doable. I believe, as I've said for a while now, in Travis Wilson and I feel he's on the cusp of a career-defining victory. Maybe it's just delusional fan speak, but whatever it seems to be, I am confident in what he's doing. So confident that this week's game feels like it could be a win.
But it just feels like one - it doesn't necessarily look like one. In fact, just eye-ballin' this thing, I'd say UCLA wins a tough, but ultimately comfortable, game. Maybe not quite blowout ... but not quite final play deal, either. They do appear to be the better team.
I don't know if my feelings negate reality, or if reality is really reality. What I do know is that if Utah somehow does win Thursday, it won't surprise me.
UCLA is beatable. Utah is slowly getting it together and in a tough, weekday environment, I think there is the makings for a spectacular victory and season changing win.
Or the fan speak is just that and the Utes just aren't on UCLA's level. There would be no shame in losing to the Bruins - if it's competitive. Even if victory isn't to be had, I do expect a good game, and more than just a token challenge from Utah.
If Vegas is right, Thursday is going to be a nerve-racking, pulse pounding contest.
Hopefully the Utes can win.
They certainly have a chance.