- Ted Miller, ESPN Staff Writer
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There is little space for "what might have been" in big-time college football. That's why coaches say that injuries are part of the game and no excuse for losing.
Which, of course, is malarky. Injuries are an excuse for losing. They are, in fact, often the biggest reason a team loses, and a lack of them is a big reason a team wins. Coaches just aren't allowed to say that on the record, though most of them in casual, off-the-record moments can do a wistful blow-by-blow on, yes, what might have been.
And so we have Utah and quarterbacks. It was revealed Monday that sophomore QB Travis Wilson is done for the year due to a concussion, and a pre-existing condition found during post-concussion exams might end his career. It's distressing news for Wilson, a promising player who'd given Utes fans hope that they'd finally found a solution at the critical position that had riddled the program since Brian Johnson led the team to a 13-0 record in 2008.
Instead, Wilson makes it four consecutive seasons that Utah lost its starting quarterback to injury, with Johnson being the last to make it through a season unscathed.
If you are looking for the biggest reason that Utah has struggled in Pac-12 play, that is it. Oh, if you wanted to be rational, you could also note the Utes have been without their second-best defensive player, LB Brian Blechen, all season, and that they lost WR Kenneth Scott in the season opener, and that they weren't able to pair their A-list tight ends, Jake Murphy and Westlee Tonga, in Pac-12 play, with Murphy only returning against Oregon from a wrist injury that was supposed to end his season.
Still, the QB is the thing. You can't win without a good one, particularly in the Pac-12, where QB play is at a premium.
Yet there seems to be considerable impatience out there among some Utah fans, who point the finger at coach Kyle Whittingham, as if his coaching caused Jordan Wynn's shoulders to falter and Wilson's hand and then head to be injured. These critics are the folks who expected the transition to Pac-12 play to be quick and relatively painless, that the Utes would immediately start competing for the South Division title and win nine or 10 games every year.
Kevin and I both think the criticism of Whittingham is pretty cracked. Sure, it would have been great if he and his staff had an outstanding backup QB waiting in the wings during the Utes three seasons in the Pac-12, but that's not an easy thing to do. How did USC look last year when Matt Barkley went down?
As TCU and West Virginia are learning, stepping up to a big league conference isn't easy. Heck, how are things for Pittsburgh and Syracuse in the ACC, which is hardly the arduous trek the Pac-12 is?
Conference realignment has taught us that the curmudgeons were correct a few years back when they were downgrading those spunky non-AQ teams, which Utah used to be: The top conferences -- the SEC, Big 12 and Pac-12 -- are much better than the best of the non-AQ (Mountain West) and the worst of the AQ (the former Big East), no matter the counter-argument of a scattering of random results during the season and bowl games.
By the way, with a healthy Wilson, Utah was taking a step forward this year, even with a schedule that was substantially more challenging than the previous two seasons, which didn't include dates with Stanford and Oregon.
On Oct. 12, Utah was 4-2 and coming off a win over Stanford. While it was 1-2 in conference play, the season held plenty of promise. While Wilson threw six interceptions against UCLA and three against Oregon State, both ending up as nail-biting losses, he'd thrown only one pick in the other four games. He ranked eighth in the Pac-12 and 43rd in the nation in passing efficiency and was throwing for 273.3 yards per game for a team that only got 191 yards out of its passing attack in 2012.
Then he hurt his throwing hand against Arizona and the season spiraled from there. Over the past three games, trying to play through his injury, which included even wearing a glove on his throwing hand, Wilson completed just 14 of 44 passes with six interceptions.
And so the Utes turn to sophomore Adam Schulz, who originally came to Utah as a walk-on, as they are trying to redshirt freshman Conner Manning. His task is pretty straightforward over the next two games, both of which the Utes need to win to become bowl eligible: Take what the defense gives you and don't force things. Manage the game and play to a good Utes defense.
In the preseason, 6-6 seemed like a reasonable expectation for Utah's season. It remains that way, even with a backup QB now the starter. If Utah plays well, it can win at Washington State and then beat Colorado in the season finale, thereby improving on last year's 5-7 mark.
My chief thought at midseason with the Utes was they might begin to make a move in 2014, with Wilson back as a third-year starter and improving talent throughout the depth chart. Obviously, the critical peg upon which that projection hung is now questionable.
So a rueful "what might have been" becomes a worrisome "what might be?"
The only flimsy consolation we can offer at this moment is this: At some point, you'd think Utah's starting QB will remain healthy all season, and that should produce more satisfying results.