One of the real pleasures Utah football finds itself saturated in and surrounded by is counter-intuitive.
Even sporting a strong, undefeated team, the Utes don’t know if they’ll win this week.
Stanford, in fact, is favored at Rice-Eccles on Saturday night. That’s the burden and the beauty of playing in the Pac-12.
And it is a thorough and heavy kind of beautiful, even for fanatics whose emotions and partisanship and anxieties and risk-factor run so deep.
No matter how good Utah actually is, only a fool would presume victory. That’s the way it is, the way it’s been for seven seasons and the way it always will be.
Kyle Whittingham is fully aware.
“Stanford is a really good football team,” he said. “A typical Stanford team. Physical. Smash-mouth on offense. Tremendous running back, he’s averaging over 11 yards a carry, which is unheard of. That just doesn’t happen. … They’re averaging nearly eight yards a play as an offense. They’re very efficient, they do what they do very well. … We got our work cut out for us. It’ll be a great matchup.”
Same as it is every Pac-12 week.
Doesn’t matter what level Utah reaches or how highly ranked it is or how good people think it can or will be, a loss’s specter is never distant. Ask USC, after its fresh defeat at Washington State, about that.
Since the Utes came into the league, they have a conference record of 26-29. From 2014 on, they’ve been 17-11. They’ve gained the respect of every league opponent. That specter goes both ways, then — no matter how good any of the other teams are, they could lose to the Utes, too. That’s how balanced the equation is.
This is the third straight season in which Utah has started strong, this time 4-0. Last season, the Utes were 4-0 before losing at Cal, and winning seven of eight. The season before that, they were 6-0 before losing to the Trojans, and winning eight of nine. The season before that, they were 3-0 before losing to Washington State, and winning six of their first seven.
November’s difficulties have been well chronicled.
The uncertainty of drawing up any absolutes about this particular Utah team at this juncture is clouded by considering that past. It’s not a complaint or a criticism, it’s more a celebration of the test ahead.
As Whittingham said, Stanford will attempt to punch and pound the rock straight into Utah’s mug, a feat most teams can only dream of doing. His primary defensive goal every week is to stop the run and his teams have been great at achieving that goal. And yet, the Cardinal, with running back Bryce Love, who gained more than 300 yards last week, will run hard and fast and his brutish and experienced offensive line will attempt to grade that road in front of him.
The following week, the Utes get USC at the Coliseum.
After that, the typical remaining fare — Arizona State, Oregon, UCLA, Washington State, Washington and Colorado. But typical in the Pac-12 means varied to the extremes.
Just as Stanford will make the attempt to man up, to crush, to pulverize Utah’s tough defense, Washington State will echo the old days of LaVell Edwards’ offenses through the prism of Mike Leach, trying to throw over it, through it, around it. Wazzu averages over 50 passes a game. Stanford throws it half that much.
That’s the diversity, with all sorts of mixtures in-between, that makes the test so appealing.
Love already has run for 1,088 yards in five games. All told, the Cardinal have rushed for 1,364 yards. They’ve thrown for 942.
Washington State has gained 2,070 yards through the air, 409 on the ground. UCLA is nearly equally unbalanced, throwing for 2,179 yards, running for 575. Oregon lands between those offenses and Stanford’s, gaining a level 1,383 via the pass and 1,304 via the run.
Washington might be the best team in the conference, and it ranks only seventh in total offense, although it is second in overall scoring. The Huskies’ defense leads the league in yards yielded (256 per game) and in scoring (10.8).
By comparison, Utah’s offense ranks eighth in yardage gained, seventh in scoring. Its defense is third in total yards given up, second in scoring allowed and first in stopping the run.
Utah’s game with Stanford, then, comes down to the Utes’ defensive wall against the Cardinal’s battering ram. If black-and-blue football is your football of choice, Saturday night’s game should be a whole lot of fun.
“A heavyweight slugfest,” is what Whittingham called it.
If a more enlightened brand of ball is your thing, the guys in front chasing down the quarterback, the guys in back covering a plethora of routes, close your eyes and count to 10, and you’ll get your wish.
Stirring the variance of approach with the level of athleticism, week after week after week, is what makes the beverage the Utes drink in the Pac-12 go down so smooth — even in defeat.
And they’re going to get beat … somewhere, somehow, sometime. Probably more than once.
Utah football doesn’t think that way because it — coaches and players — cannot allow it, cannot concede anything, before or after a defeat.
That makes the inevitable no less true.
The Utes, now that they are as competitive as they are, are made men. Win or lose on any given week, they belong. They’re in. If they edge on up the scale, even better for them. If they make the truth a lie, hallelujah. They’ll have earned it, and the celebrating can go throttle up.
They might win on Saturday night. They might lose.
One might be preferable to the other.
But, either way, it’s top-level football. It’s a beautiful thing.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Spence Checketts weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.