While projections that Utah might win the Pac-12 South Division this season -- its first in an AQ conference -- might have been a bit optimistic, this "The Utes don't belong" crap needs to stop.
The Utes got pounded in their last two games against Washington and Arizona State primarily because: 1. QB Jordan Wynn was lost for the season to a shoulder injury in the first half against the Huskies; 2. The Utes lost the turnover battle in those games by a combined 10-1 count, splitting five in each game.
Just excuses, right? OK, let's have some fun.
Don't want to give the Utes a break, Oregon fans? Fine.
Boy, LSU just physically dominated you Ducks! Turnovers and penalties played no part. Those are just excuses.
Don't want to give the Utes a break, Washington fans? Fine.
Boy, Nebraska really beat you guys silly Huskies! Turnover and penalties played no part, particularly that outstanding punt interference call.
Would it help Utah to have played Wyoming and New Mexico to open its conference season, as it might have done in the Mountain West Conference? Sure. Do the top-half Pac-12 teams have better talent depth than Utah? Probably.
"I think we need to get bigger," Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said. "It's not way off. It's just a little bit off. I think everybody in this conference is a little bit bigger, a little bit faster, a little bit stronger than the previous conference we were in."
But Whittingham added, "I think we're matching up pretty good."
Utah went nose-to-nose with USC -- on the road -- and had a chance to force overtime if not for a blocked field goal on the game's final play. The Utes were down three at the half to Washington before Wynn went down. And they were up 14-10 in the third quarter against the Sun Devils before three turnovers on three consecutive possessions transformed the game.
Further, the loss of Wynn is not an analyst-come-lately excuse. It was evident in the preseason that the singularly most important thing for Utah was keeping Wynn healthy. In July, we named Wynn the Utes' "Indispensable Player," writing:
But Wynn's indispensability isn't just about the player himself. It's about the absence of a plan B should he go down. Tyler Shreve figures to be Wynn's understudy this fall, and he has talent. But he's a grayshirt freshman that often looked overwhelmed this past spring. His competition for the backup job was Griff Robles, and Robles' move to linebacker after spring practices pretty much tells you where that ended up. Further, the transfer of 6-foot Jon Hays from Nebraska-Omaha probably won't inspire much confidence. In other words, without Wynn, things would look bleak offensively, at least in terms of a reliable passing game.
Utah has proven itself as a program. Since 2003, it's beaten Alabama, Oregon, Michigan, Texas A&M, California, Oregon State, Georgia Tech, North Carolina, Pittsburgh, Arizona, etc.
Is the grind an issue for the Utes? Well, by definition a "grind" implies a longer run. If the Utes manage to win just a couple of Pac-12 games at season's end, then perhaps we can say the grind got to them. At this point, they've only lost to what appear to be three of the top five or six teams in the league. Or, as Whittingham said, "upper-echelon" teams.
This is not the best Utah team of the past eight or so years, and we knew that in the preseason. In fact, there was a strong whiff of rebuilding in Salt Lake, whatever conference the Utes played in, though the Utes' recent success allowed for some to optimistically posit a reloading instead.
Utah is not going to get stuck in the bottom third of the Pac-12 going forward. Trust me on that.
Of course, it does need to get better, which means taking advantage of its new status living among the haves.
Said Whittingham, "We've got to keep recruiting, we've got to keep working, we've got to keep developing the guys we've already got in the program in the weight room."
So, sure, if you want to trash talk Utah, go ahead. That's what we do with each other on the Pac-12 blog.
But just don't take yourself seriously. If you actually think your team has a new conference patsy, the Pac-12 blog is here to tell you that expectations is going to let you down.