In a moment of reflection this week, Utah linebacker Stevenson Sylvester said of the Utah State Aggies: "They're going to be tough. I mean, who knows where their heads are going to be? They're probably very high right now."
For that matter, who knows what's in the Utes' heads?
Odds are good that tonight's Utah-Utah State football game will reveal more about the Utes than it will the Aggies — including what's in their heads. Are they thinking of another BCS Bowl appearance, or just a trip to Las Vegas?
Maybe they're just deciding where they're going for pizza after the game.
All summer, people wondered what the game will mean for new USU coach Gary Andersen and his team, and whether he can resurrect a long-dead program. Yet the scenario is probably more important to Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. After two BCS bowl appearances in five years, he has the national media wondering if Utah is a permanent player. This is a game the Utes should win handily.
It will indicate whether they are vulnerable to being sidetracked by inattention and arrogance.
If it sounds kooky that Utah should have any trouble whatsoever with the Aggies, consider this: It had trouble last season with Weber State. Though the Utes won 37-21, the teams were tied after one quarter. After scoring 30 unanswered points to put the game away, the Utes allowed two Weber touchdowns in the fourth quarter. Admittedly, by that point a number of second-team players were in the game. Still, the Utes worried enough to unveil a trick play — one that probably should have been kept for a more formidable opponent.
But that was a mid-season game that was hard to take seriously. This one is the season-opener. Hence, the Utes should be locked and loaded.
"All right. It's finally here," Whittingham said on Monday. "It's been a long time coming."
In spite of Utah's success in BCS bowls, the Utes haven't convinced everyone they're for real. For instance, the media. Utah was picked to finish only third this year in the Mountain West, behind TCU and BYU. Apparently all the last-minute victories last year didn't convince people the Utes were all that good.
"We're used to that," said honors candidate Zane Beadles, offhandedly.
Then there is the skepticism over the losses of Brian Johnson, Paul Kruger, Sean Smith and Louie Sakoda, as well as several fine receivers.
Still, when BYU was winning championships in the '80s and '90s, the Cougars got picked to win the conference every year, no matter who was coming and going.
Now the Utes have a chance to prove they know how to reload.
There are signs that Whittingham is building a consistent Top-25 program. The Utes do have more depth than ever. If you ask him, they even have enough to absorb player losses from last year.
But history says that's unlikely. After Utah's undefeated 2004 season, the Utes went a disappointing 7-5 in 2005 when No. 1 draft pick Alex Smith went pro. They finished 4-4, 5-3 and 5-3 in the conference during Whittingham's first three seasons as head coach.
But Whittingham says his 2009 team is "more talented than it was in '05."
"I don't believe that, where our program is right now, it should ever be something that we stand up and say, 'Well, we have no chance to win a championship,' " said Whittingham. "I think that if you recruit correctly — which, we feel we recruited very well in the last five years — we just feel there shouldn't be any dramatic peaks and valleys. No big drop-offs."
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