We are a little less than a week away from the end of the college football season for the University of Utah, as the Utes will close down their 2010 campaign at the MAACO Bowl Las Vegas against Boise State.
So what do we know about this game, other than the fact that the Utes are HUGE underdogs — 17 points to be exact. Well, we know this game will either validate the Utes or expose them.
Utah is a hard-to-figure 10-2 football team. It feasted on lesser opponents in its first eight games, got hammered playing TCU and Notre Dame, then finished by beating two quality squads to close out the season.
A win over Boise State would extend the nation's longest bowl winning streak to 10 games and tell us that this Utah team was definitely worthy of its early-season hype. A loss in the Las Vegas Bowl, which is expected by most folks outside of Salt Lake City, would tell us that this was a good but not great season for Utah football.
The Utes did suffer two major losses on the personnel side heading into this game. Quarterback Jordan Wynn had his season end with a throwing-shoulder injury, which opens the door for senior Terrance Cain to close his career with a start and on a high note.
Cain, who is 9-1 as a starting quarterback, will get all the snaps and brings a running element back to the Utah offense. The man who would protect Cain's blind side is also out for the bowl game. Starting left tackle John Cullen will miss the game, which opens the door for sophomore Sam Brenner to show what he will bring next season to the offensive line.
The two biggest challenges I see facing the Utes are:
1. Disrupting Kellen Moore and the Boise State passing attack. Moore is one of college football's most accurate quarterbacks and has two outstanding weapons in the form of Austin Petit and Titus Young. This puts the pressure squarely on the defensive line to apply the pressure and Brandon Burton, Lamar Chapman and Conroy Black to cover down field.
2. Finding a consistent rhythm on offense. Since starting the season 8-0, the Utah offense has struggled to find any sort of consistency. The Utes must hope that Cain can help jump-start an offensive unit that has struggled to make plays down field and establish a solid running game.
There are certainly plenty of other factors that will play into the outcome, but if Utah can win or control these two areas, its chances of pulling what might be one of the biggest upsets of this bowl season improves greatly.
I said before the season that I thought Utah was a 10-win football team and that's exactly where they are right now. What next week's trip to Vegas will tell me is which direction the Utes head into the offseason.
Will the Utes be trending up with momentum coming off a well-played game against a top-tier opponent, or will they be licking their wounds with a loss and many unanswered questions about the returning players?
My guess today is that Kyle Whittingham gets the best effort he's seen all year long from his squad, and fans will see one of the best games this bowl season. I will file one more pre-bowl column next Wednesday from Sin City and give you a feel on the days leading up to the game.
Bill Riley can be heard as the radio voice of the University of Utah on game days and also on weekdays from 2-6 p.m. on the "Bill and Spence Show" on ESPN 700 AM.