Utah is close. You can tell with how competitive all three of their losses have been - losing each game by just two points. But close doesn't mean much if you don't eventually get there, and while I suspect the Runnin' Utes are on the path to there, they could take an unfortunate detour if they don't leave Pullman with a win Sunday.
While Washington State nearly pushed
Oregon Colorado to the brink Thursday, they are still a below .500 team that has yet to win in the Pac-12. Their morale is questionable, and more importantly, their overall talent suspect. This is a team that has struggled finding its identity in the wake of Tony Bennett's departure a few years ago, and it's led to some ugly results - as Ken Bone's Cougs have finished 10th, 6th, 8th and 11th during his tenure there. Beyond the success of his second team, which saw Wazzu make the NIT semifinals, the program has ultimately regressed every season, and that has carried over into 2013-14.
So, while it's never an easy game when you're playing a Pac-12 team on the road, there are road games you think maybe your team should win and this certainly fits the bill. If Utah is going to make any legitimate run at the middle of the conference, something they have failed to do the last two seasons, it starts with games like these.
Which creates a quandary of sorts. What if the Utes don't win? What if, like last year and the year before, the team slumps to another poor Pac-12 start? Will all the progress made in the preseason be undone because of an inability to win on the road? In fact, that point has dogged Utah since they joined the conference - as they've managed only one road win ever in Pac-12 play. That came last year in a surprise against Washington, though, a few nights before, they lost to Wazzu in Pullman.
One thing that has defined the first two seasons of the Utes' play in the Pac-12 has been their inconsistency. This season, however, they have been consistent. Utah pretty much has managed to win the games they should win, and have lost the games they shouldn't. There are no bad losses, though conversely, there are really no good wins (though, BYU might improve enough to make it look good). The no bad losses, though, is encouraging because it was a major issue under Ray Giacoletti, Jim Boylen and the early parts of the Larry Krystkowiak run. Those losses are what kills a season. It's a big reason neither Giacoletti or Boylen could ever see any lasting success in Salt Lake.
Wazzu, in their current incarnation, even on the road, would be a bad loss - at least, a bad a loss for a team who's fighting for respectability. I don't want to diminish the Cougars, and I did suggest earlier that they could make a play for the middle - but it's clear they're a team in limbo. And yet, it wouldn't surprise me if Utah not only lost Sunday, but lost big.
It also wouldn't surprise me if Utah went into Pullman and knocked around the Cougars similar to the way they did another Cougars squad earlier in the season.
But I can't help but go back to the question of what a loss would do to this season. It wouldn't end it, of course, but it would put the Utes in a precarious situation. 1-3 to start the Pac-12, after one of the more reasonable stretches of the schedule, doesn't make me too confident in this team's ability to climb out of the cellar of the conference and settle toward the middle - especially with a home game against UCLA coming up and then a brutal road stretch that takes Utah through Arizona and Colorado.
Leave Pullman with a loss and the Runnin' Utes are looking at potentially a best case scenario of 2-7.
Then we're right back to where we were in 2013 and 2012.
That doesn't necessarily change with a win over the Cougars, but it would help galvanize confidence, especially for a team that has not done much of anything on the road over the years.
Bottom line: Sunday is big. Maybe not must-win, but it's big enough to alter the course of the season. Utah has proven its close, even closer than many of us expected for 2014, however, a loss would definitely halt our progress and, if we're not careful, force us back into the damning world of regression.
Let's even up our Pac-12 record. Let's win on the road. Let's beat Washington State.