Saturday is a pretty big game for Utah. I don't know if it's quite at the level of season defining, but it certainly has the makings for such a contest. Sure, Oregon State's loss to FCS Eastern Washington has put a bit of a damper on their overall season - but this is still a team that won a surprising nine games last season and began this season ranked in the top-25. Only a fool would overlook 'em because of an early season loss. They've got the talent, specifically on offense, to come into Rice-Eccles and walk out victorious.
So, this isn't like two years ago when the Beavers limped into their game against Utah. The Utes won that game decisively, and it helped spark a run that got 'em to a bowl game. No such thing materialized last year, as Utah lost 21-7 in Corvallis. It was a competitive game, but one the Utes ultimately lost - like many of their defeats last season.
But this is 2013 and already, Utah has looked like a completely different team. Travis Wilson, and the Utes' offense, have looked solid in their first two weeks and the hope is that carries over against a defense that, after two games, ranks 85th. That statistic suggests Saturday could be an offensive extravaganza, especially when you consider Utah's defense is 52nd nationally - and that includes last weekend's thumping of Weber.
In fact, despite their early flaws, the Beavers do have a fairly potent offense led by the very solid Sean Mannion who, while his team has struggled a bit, took apart the secondaries of Eastern Washington and Hawaii. That should be a concern for the Utes, as their secondary has been suspect much of this early season.
Ultimately, this game could set the course for the 2013 season. Utah has some momentum, and a 3-0 start would only put 'em three wins away from bowl eligibility. It'd also mark the first time since joining the Pac-12 that the team started conference play with a win. So, like I said, this is a pretty big game.
What would a victory mean for Utah - well besides inching that much closer to a bowl game? I think it'd help establish this team as one to watch. For whatever reason, the Utes have struggled proving themselves in the Pac. No one takes 'em seriously anymore, especially after last season, and even though they managed two wins to start the 2013 season, they still lack substantial traction in the eyes of many. A win over Oregon State might not change that, but it'll definitely open up the idea that last year was a fluke and that maybe things are finally turning around in Salt Lake.
Conversely, a loss will once again establish the idea that Utah is a step or two behind the rest of the conference. As impressive as the Beavers were last season, and I don't want to take anything away from them, they're also a very beatable team. They were beatable then, too, but this year is a bit different - Oregon State doesn't look as consistent, or solid, as last year's team. Maybe that's just early struggles, and, by late October, they'll be clicking again (Mike Riley seems to have a penchant for starting slow), but I don't think any Utah fan looks at this game and sees loss written all over it ... especially with it coming in Salt Lake.
Now, don't take that as overconfidence. I think the Beavers are very capable of winning Saturday. It's just that for things to go right this season, for this team to not revert into the mess that plagued last year, they'll need to win these types of games - you know, winnable contests at home. They've got to take advantage of the home crowd and the opponent. Really, there is no reason Utah shouldn't be 3-0 come early Sunday morning.
That sounds bold, especially after last season, but I'm also looking at this through the idea the Utes are improved. If they're improved, and I think they are, this is a game that should flip. They were close to winning last season and that was with a team that struggled through huge stretches (either on offense or all around). But improvement should change that. I expect that to change.
Which means Saturday is a big game. It's big because the Utes can start conference play undefeated (instead of 0-4). It's big because Utah can finally notch a quality win (instead of beating up on the Losers Club). It's big because, when you get down to it, it's the conference opener at home.
You shouldn't lose games like that.
Still, it won't be easy. Oregon State will fight. Utah just needs to fight back.