After months of film study, practice observation and expert analysis, I’ve come to an absolute conclusion regarding Thursday night’s football season opener at Rice-Eccles Stadium.
Utah cannot lose this game.
That’s not to say the Utes are incapable of losing to Utah State again, just that it’s not allowable.
For the Aggies, this game represents a wonderful opportunity. For the Utes, winning is a requirement.
The Utes face exponentially more pressure than USU, which could work for or against them. Actually, the blessing of last season’s 5-7 struggle is these guys just have to beat USU and eventually qualify for a bowl game to show improvement.
Those two things go together. If Utah overcomes the Aggies and looks good in the process, the picture will brighten considerably. The Utes could imagine the possibilities of a 4-0 start, as they play Oregon State in between Weber State and BYU in September, and bowl eligibility would become much more manageable.
But if the Utes lose, then this season turns into a quest to find six victories somewhere. That would take beating at least four Pac-12 opponents — and just try identifying those wins, other than Washington State and Colorado at the very end.
Utah State can afford a loss in August. The Aggies have next week’s Mountain West debut at Air Force and a home game with BYU as further opportunities to define their season, plus a bunch of winnable conference games. Another postseason appearance will demonstrate that coach Matt Wells can maintain much of what Gary Andersen established in Logan.
Wells would love to win Thursday, in his first game as a head coach. Utah’s Kyle Whittingham needs to win, in his 104th game.
At some point in the near future, the Utes must make progress in the Pac-12. They have to do more as conference members than merely wear those nice patches on their uniforms, paint logos on the field and win 38 percent of their Pac-12 games, as they’ve done in two years. Yet this season’s standards are such that, to me, every win counts almost equally toward the necessary six. If the Utes go 3-0 in the state and 3-6 in the conference, that’s acceptable.
And if they’re good enough to handle USU and BYU, they should be able to pick off four or five Pac-12 victories. The Aggies have elevated themselves to a point where beating them will be more meaningful to Utah than at any time in 15 years — and will require a better offensive performance than just about anything the Utes delivered in 2012.
So if the Utes win, co-offensive coordinator Dennis Erickson and quarterback Travis Wilson likely will have a made a good impression. USU’s defense will be a good gauge of Utah’s offensive improvement, making this opener even more intriguing.
Everybody in Uteville, including Wilson himself, is curious. “I definitely want to see ... what we look like as an offense,” the QB said.
If the offense produces signs of life, kicker Andy Phillips proves to be dependable and the new cornerbacks perform well against USU quarterback Chuckie Keeton and his receivers, Utah will inspire some hope for 2013. Conveniently, all those elements probably have to work in the Utes’ favor for them to win.
In other words, this is not like Montana State of 2011 or Northern Colorado of 2012. Those season-opening visits from lower-level opponents produced Utah victories that were unsatisfying, at best. Considering the state of Utah’s program as of August 2013, that description would not apply to beating Utah State.