Two weeks ago, the University of Utah football team had a 3-0 record, which included victories over Michigan, Utah State and Fresno State, none of which were especially dominating wins.
Two weeks in the Petri dish of college football is a long time. Today, the Utes are 4-0, with a big-time win—a pummeling—of the mighty University of Oregon. That single victory in Eugene—big as it was at 62-20—propelled the Utes from the No. 18 ranking in the Associated Press poll, all the way to No. 10. The Utes followed up this stout showing with one of the most productive weeks in the school’s history, via ranking anyway, by not taking the field, moving up five slots to No. 5 during a bye week.
But this week, and every week hereafter until the snow flies and turkeys roast, the Utes will take the field. And when they sprint onto a brand-spanking-new set of plastic turf this Saturday against the University of California, the lights will be shining brighter than ever.
ESPN’s vaunted College GameDay fiasco is, at this very moment, setting up shop in President’s Circle. By 6 p.m. on Friday evening, Utah fans will be pitching their tents, lying out their sleeping bags and consuming all sorts of liquids in preparation of the early morning GameDay broadcast. Legions of other Utah fans are buying up Sharpies to craft signs, many of which will target and defame the BYU Cougars, a team Utah isn’t even playing this year.
The universe is in balance.
But Utah’s rise to the soaring echelons of collegiate football hasn’t always come so easy. During the 2004-05 season, with Urban Meyer at the reins and quarterback Alex Smith behind center, the Utes destroyed Texas A&M and Arizona in nonconference matchups, then tore through the Mountain West Conference like rabid conquerors. Even with this dominant team, it took Utah 13 weeks to arrive at its No. 5 ranking.
Utah’s other undefeated team, the 2008 squad led by quarterback Brian Johnson, squeaked through the season on pure grit and luck. And even with a 12-0 record, the best ranking the Utes received in the AP poll during the regular season was No. 6.
The biggest difference between 2015 and these past Utah squads is the Utes’ acceptance into the Pacific 12 Conference, a club that is clearly a notch above the Mountain West when it comes to fielding solid football teams.
But the question that looms over this Utah football team that beat Utah State by 10 points and did almost everything in its power to lose to Michigan in the final four minutes of the season opener, is whether it is anywhere near as good as its ranking would suggest.
This is the first time Utah has had to deal with this question, and battle through the bog of high expectations and national speculation. In 2004 and 2008, Utah players, coaches and fans knew they had something special. And by the time the end of those seasons rolled around, with Utah ranked in the single digits, there was no question that the Utes were bruisers. In 2008, after Utah dismantled Alabama, the only person in the country who seemed truly stunned was Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban.
Given Utah’s stout tradition of having to earn every bit of respect it can get from pollsters and pundits, the past two weeks since Utah finished off Oregon have seemed a bit strange. Where Utah once received a single slot higher in the rankings for every two wins, Utah now moves up five spots on a week when it doesn’t play.
Can Utah survive the Pac-12 schedule that lies ahead, with teams like UCLA, USC, Arizona, Arizona State remaining? No one knows.
The best thing to do is crack open some liquids and see if the Utes can make it through an undefeated California team—which, at 5-0, is ranked No. 23 and clearly hasn’t garnered the same level of hype as Utah.
If Utah does indeed manage to beat the snot out of California, a small dose of perspective will be in order. That fine 2004 Utah team finished the regular season ranked No. 5 with three undefeated teams—USC, Auburn and Oklahoma—ahead of it in the first three slots. Sitting comfortably at No. 4, with one loss, was California, one of those blasted members of a big-time club—the inclusion of which alone made it more deserving of a higher ranking and better than the Utes.
Utah helped write a history that showed the vagrancy in the Bowl Championship Series system of rankings. Now, whether it likes it or not, Utah is, for at least another day, the crowned jewel of the speculative system that it once loathed.
By November, Utah fans will know whether they prefer the Utes to be the underdog or the top dog.