SALT LAKE CITY — At 4-6 overall with two games remaining, the Utah Utes are in foreign territory.
Last week’s loss at Washington assured the program of its first non-winning regular season since going 5-6 in 2002. In fact, after back-to-back losing seasons in 1989 and 1990, Utah’s only other shortcoming in that regard was a 4-7 mark in 2000.
As for finishing .500, the Utes haven’t done that since going 5-5-1 in 1980.
While it remains to be seen which category this year’s team falls into, circumstances have changed up on the hill. A nine-year run of consecutive winning regular-season records has come to an end.
“It’s foreign but we’re in a new world here. This is the Pac-12 and this is the grind that is the Pac-12 and it’s here to stay,” said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. “Winning 10 games like clockwork in the Mountain West, I mean, that was then and this is now.”
The bar has been raised significantly. After going 21-3 over their last three seasons in the MWC, the Utes have struggled in Pac-12 play. Since joining the conference last season, they’re just 6-10 — losing at least once to seven of the 10 schools they’ve faced so far in their new league. And things could get even more difficult next season when the league’s scheduling rotation puts national powers Oregon and Stanford on Utah’s slate.
The challenges, though, are not deterring Whittingham.
“We’re building something here and we’re working towards getting the program elevated where it needs to be,” he explained. “So I don’t think you can compare this year from years past because, like I said, it’s a whole different ballgame.”
Indeed. After making nine consecutive bowl appearances, Utah has no guarantees about going to a 10th. Should they become bowl eligible, the Utes will most likely be invited to fill a slot that another conference was unable to fill. The Pac-12 already has seven bowl-eligible teams and Arizona State can join the mix with a win over Washington State on Saturday.
Whittingham acknowledged that there’s a singleness of purpose with the Utes as the season winds down. The variables, he noted, are cut way down.
“It’s do or die. Either win and you’re still alive or you don’t win and there goes the chance for a bowl hope,” Whittingham said. “So I think it has come down to a finely tuned, or finely focused, scenario.”
Going bowling has its obvious advantages, especially for a program like Utah that is working to make its mark in the Pac-12.
“It’s important not only from a recruiting standpoint but from your own development as a football team. You get those extra practices. It’s like having an extra spring ball. That’s probably as important as anything else,” Whittingham said. “It certainly gives you a boost in recruiting and it’s a positive to be able to have a bowl game for recruits to see on a national stage and being able to have that string that we have going. But as importantly is the extra work that we get, particularly for the young guys during the bowl prep — during those 15 practices that you get.”
Among the national bowl projections, Utah’s possible destinations are varied. Earlier this week, ESPN.com’s Mark Schlabach predicted the Utes will face San Jose State in the Military Bowl in Washington, D.C., while Jerry Palm of CBSSports.com has the Utes taking on Louisiana Tech in the Independence Bowl.
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