SALT LAKE CITY —
"When you're talking about playing the physical teams that we'll be playing week in and week out, I think your depth of your squad is going to become even more important than it was in the Mountain West Conference. I think that, really, in my opinion, is what separates conference from conference is the overall talent of your roster from one to 85. In my opinion, the teams in the Pac-12 have more depth on their rosters than what you find in the Mountain West Conference."
— Utah head football coach Kyle Whittingham said on Feb. 23, 2011.
The coach was able to read the tea leaves pretty well just about six months before his first season in the Pac-12 Conference. Now, some 20 months later, the Utah football program finds itself trying to claw its way to the first conference win of its second Pac-12 campaign.
Utah fans and players are finding out that the transition to life in the Pac-12 and BCS world isn't as smooth as once thought. Talk of the Rose Bowl is now replaced with talk of making it to a bowl game. At 2-4 and 0-3 for a second straight year, the Utes are going to need to improve a great deal over the second half of the season to qualify for a bowl game for a 10th straight season.
Two seasons into life in the Pac-12, things have begun to look a little less optimistic for Utah football. But if Ute fans would like a reason to be hopeful that things can turn around and turn around quickly, then look no farther than this weekend's opponent: Oregon State. Despite a ton of recent success, the Beavers struggled the last two seasons to 5-7 and 3-9 records.
A year ago, Oregon State head coach Mike Riley made the decision to go with Sean Mannion, a young and inexperienced quarterback, to lead the team. While the wins didn't come, the numbers and learning did for Mannion, as he started 10 of the 12 games, threw for 16 touchdowns and 18 interceptions and set a number of school passing marks.
Prior to his injury two weeks ago, Mannion was a big reason why the Beavers were off to an undefeated start with wins over Wisconsin, UCLA, Arizona and Wahington State. It hasn't been just Mannion; the development of young key players such as Scott Crichton (the nation's sack leader), Brandin Cooks (Pac-12 receiving leader) and Storm Woods (OSU's leading rusher) has been a key for Riley and Oregon State's resurgence this season.
This is not to make excuses for Utah or say that the same thing will happen here in Salt Lake City. I simply cite this as an example of how things can turn around quickly, if there is young talent in the program, and I believe that there is young talent in the Utah football program: Travis Wilson, Kenneth Scott, Dres Anderson, Jeremiah Poutasi, Nate Fakahafua, Rashawn Hooker, Eric Rowe, etc.
Now the question is, how quickly can or will this young Utah talent develop? This is where Whittingham and his staff must earn their keep by figuring out the best way to integrate the young players with the more experienced ones to give Utah the best chance to win now, but also moving into the future.
It's never an easy task, but as Whittingham's crew gets ready for this week's game, the blueprint might just be right across the field at Reser Stadium on Saturday night.
Bill Riley is the co-host of the Bill and Hans Show weekdays from 2-6 p.m on ESPN 700 AM. You can follow Bill on Twitter @espn700bill.
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