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(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah coach Kyle Whittingham looks on as Utah State takes a 17-14 first half lead as the University of Utah hosts Utah State, college football Thursday, August 29, 2013 at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City.
Monson: Utah football faces ugly, beautiful challenge

As big as Stanford win was, reality for Utes is that it gets no easier from here.

First Published Oct 14 2013 12:15 pm • Last Updated Feb 14 2014 11:35 pm

Sometimes a difficult thing is a beautiful thing.

Utah finally steps away from its league demons, punching out the Stanford Cardinal, the fifth-ranked team in the country, in a Pac-12 game that has a fluke factor of zip-zilch-zero, and what does it get for its trouble?

At a glance

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It gets more trouble.

Four of the Utes’ next five games are on the road, including trips to the Coliseum and to Autzen — and based on their rough rides of the past two seasons, their hold on victory is loose. They’ve won just three of nine conference roadies.

That’s the curse/blessing of now playing in the Pac-12: A great win one week means nothing the next. Longtime league members are fully aware that celebration often turns to sadness, especially for teams caught in the vortex of the middle of the standings.

It’s a brawl.

At 1-2 in league, the Utes would be pleased to include themselves in that whirl. Even for the more accomplished teams, like Stanford, the conference run is bumpy. Utah is a perfect example of the chop that lies ahead — for the Utes. The Cardinal had no serious reason to believe their unbeaten streak would end at Rice-Eccles Stadium, against a team that was winless in the Pac-12. But that made their defeat no easier to absorb on Saturday night.

It’s the burden — and the beauty — of playing in a legitimate league. All those years of Utah’s competing in the Mountain West, particularly at the pinnacle in 2004 and 2008, never provided that kind of weekly fight. There were some close margins, but the competition was decidedly weaker.

A lot of us were seduced back then by a couple of big wins against better teams, or even a great team, aggregated with a steady flow of victories over lesser ones. But it is the week-by-week test that measures the real prowess or weakness of teams — top to bottom. Anything less is reasonably called into question.

That seems obvious now, but in the past around here, with local teams stuck in lower realms, it was easy to rationalize — and overinflate — the achievements of undefeated and near-undefeated teams that didn’t have the chance to prove themselves by running an authentic gauntlet.

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After so much complaining about the injustices of the BCS from so many of us, this corner included, that’s a tough thing to admit. Most comers do deserve a shot at the postseason, but to argue that teams with glossy records who have not faced the high hurdles of weekly battle against decent-to-accomplished foes should be awarded the same acclaim at the top of college football’s hierarchy is foolhardy. It’s an illusion. It’s a delusion.

Ouch, I know.

It makes you wonder how great those terrific teams of the past really were. Would the Utes of 2008, a team good enough to beat Alabama in the Sugar Bowl, have been good enough to go unbeaten against the Utes’ current Pac-12 schedule? On the other hand, it might not have had to go unbeaten for the same bowl opportunity.

Either way, Utah, after losing to Oregon State and UCLA and beating Stanford, now must slog its way through Arizona and USC on the road, Arizona State at home, then Oregon and Washington State on the road.

There was a reason Kyle Whittingham had that vexed expression on his face the day it was announced that the Utes were joining the Pac-12, the day others were grinning and giggling and slapping balloons around in celebration up in the big loge at Rice-Eccles Stadium. He knew he’d be paid more, have better facilities and perform under a brighter spotlight. He knew he’d have moments like he had against Stanford. He also knew he’d have what comes next.

The postgame party was nice on Saturday night.

But next Saturday night and the four that follow are just as likely to cause him pain.

Big challenges and big chances at big rewards.

It’s difficult. It’s beautiful.

GORDON MONSON hosts "The Big Show" with Spence Checketts weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM/1280 and 960 AM The Zone. Twitter: @GordonMonson.

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