Monson: Big questions await Utah football
Minutes after Utah's loss to Boise State in the Las Vegas Bowl, a swirl of warm and cold wind had snapped Kyle Whittingham's head around. He was already thinking about what comes next.
A shot at the Rose Bowl comes next.
A shot at getting thumped every week comes next.
The Pac-12 comes next.
"We're ramping up for it," he said. "The bar is raised in all areas. â¦ That's our challenge."
It is a challenge the Utes have worked for and dreamed of for years. Utah athletics director Chris Hill, on hand to witness Wednesday night's bowl defeat, said he believes hopes Ute football is in proper position to battle successfully with USC, Oregon, Stanford, Cal, and the rest of the power teams along the coast.
"You might as well put all your chips on the table," he said. "And get after it, and see what happens."
Not only will the Utes eventually after serving a couple of seasons as a less-than-equal league partner reap the financial rewards of a much more lucrative sports environment, they also now have competitive opportunities that once were beyond their reach. The trick there, naturally, is capitalizing on those new chances.
Transforming Utah into Washington State isn't what Hill had in mind when he started campaigning for a slot in the expanded BCS league. A well-remunerated doormat is still a doormat, with muddy cleats scrubbed clean at its expense.
It was Bruce Springsteen who sang the song, "With Every Wish Comes a Curse."
Beating the curse here means not only finding a way to avoid embarrassment, to stay afloat, but reeling in enough wins to fulfill the program's promise and keep its fans engaged enough to buy tickets.
"You do have to be careful what you wish for," Hill said. "But, at the same time, there's no hesitation. I'm not into [setting required standards by] win-loss records. In the Pac-12, we want to be in the fight. That's what we're planning on. We want to be a formidable member of the league. From there, who knows?"
Certainly, the players are jacked about the prospects at hand, and dismiss any notion that losses down the stretch of the just-completed season to TCU, Notre Dame, and Boise State represent any harbinger of difficult times against tougher competition, especially when the Utes face conference foes on the road.
"The Pac-12 will be great," said freshman safety Brian Blechen. "We're all excited about that."
Added departing senior Shaky Smithson: "As long as they have Coach Whitt, they'll do good in that league."
A quick glance at the 2011 schedule, game by game, can lead to varied conclusions. One indisputable thing is that the Utes couldn't have had a more fortuitous league path had they scripted it themselves.
They play at USC, Washington, Arizona State, at Cal, Oregon State, at Arizona, UCLA, at Washington State, Colorado. Plus, for true optimists, a possible league title game. (Nonconference games: Montana State, at BYU, at Pitt.)
Most of those contests could be seen, at least by the optimists, as potential victories. In their virginal voyage through the regular season in their new conference, the Utes will not have to face Oregon or Stanford, either of which might have been a loss. They do get the weakest teams.
However, the real danger for Utah comes in the cumulative effect, facing a higher level of talent week after week after week. Through the coming undulations of a more difficult conference slate, the Utes will not have many figurative games off. Even though some of the Pac-12's teams aren't world-beaters, Utah will rarely get a run of softies like it enjoyed this past year: New Mexico, Colorado State, UNLV, Wyoming, and the like. Any substandard showing could punch the Utes in the mug.
You have to wonder, how much punching will Utah have to endure? How much punching will the fans absorb and accept? What happens if the Utes go, say, 7-5, in 2011? Is that good enough? Will fans be pleased just to see good teams, a compelling matchup most weeks, instead of an automatic victory?
Those questions have answers. It's just that nobody knows what they are, yet.
Back when Utah had its press conference/party at Rice-Eccles Stadium in conjunction with the Pac-12 announcement, few were thinking about the realities of what lay in wait. But Whittingham was one of them.
He had the look of a man that day who wasn't exactly sure if he had just been invited to a celebration or an execution.
Now he can worry in earnest because there's nothing between him and his new challenges, except a whole run of new things to worry about, including how he's going to beat USC on the road.
The double entendre of a season called "the fall" never had at least the threat of more duality to its meaning than the one the Utes will face next.
GORDON MONSON hosts "The Gordon Monson Show" weekdays from 2-6 p.m. on 1280 The Zone. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.