SALT LAKE CITY —It's amazing what can happen in just a couple of years. A little less than two years ago the University of Utah played, and beat quite handily, the Cal Bears in the Poinsettia Bowl in San Diego.
It was a coming-out party of sorts for then freshman quarterback Jordan Wynn. The San Diego native returned home to throw for 338 yards and three touchdowns to earn the offensive MVP trophy, and it looked like the beginning of a new quarterback era for the Utes was is in the making.
Fast forward to today and Wynn has recently undergone his third major shoulder surgery, and his career at Utah is very much uncertain.
The last time these two teams met the Utes were still on the outside looking in at the BCS and major conference affiliation, despite having gone undefeated and winning two BCS bowl games in the prior five seasons. The coaches are the same this time around as they were last time, as both Jeff Tedford and Kyle Whittingham continue to run the programs in Berkeley and Salt Lake City.
What's changed though is the direction of these two programs. Utah has enjoyed four straight seasons of nine-plus wins and still has a chance to make it five, while California's win total under Tedford dropped from nine in 2008 to eight in 2009 to just five wins last season.
So while the coaching seat might not be hot for Tedford it's certainly getting warm.
Despite the struggles in recent years, Tedford still gets it done in recruiting talent. You can make the case that outside of USC over the last decade nobody in the old Pac-10 had more or better talent than California. Those numbers bear out (yes, pun intended) the number of former Cal players on NFL rosters this fall. That number is 31, which ranks second to USC among Pac-12 schools.
All that brings us to Saturday's game at AT&T Park in San Francisco. It will be the eighth all-time between Utah and Cal, but the first as conference equals. Utah has won the last two contests and three of the last four. Both schools have played and lost to USC and Washington. From a head-to-head standpoint this is probably the most evenly matched Utah has been in a game this season.
Both teams are led by terrific defensive units. Both teams have new quarterbacks that have struggled with turnovers. And both teams have smallish running backs doing big things.
Cal has an edge with playmakers on the outside, in the dynamic receiving duo of Keenan Allen and Marvin Jones. While the Utes, despite their abysmal effort a week ago, hold an edge in the special teams game.
I think Saturday's game will be decided in one of two places. The team that can make plays on the outside with its receivers will hold an offensive edge because both defenses are stout against the run, and defensively, the team that can force the other QB out of his comfort zone and into bad decisions will be rewarded. Both Jon Hays and Zach Maynard have proven to be turnover prone.
Expect a tight one in the City by the Bay on Saturday night. One thing is for certain, the season gets markedly better for someone with a winning record and first mark in the conference win column. Once again, we are likely to see just how thin that margin for error is in the Pac-12.
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 Radio 700 AM.