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Brad Rock: Could Utah football be the new Arizona?

Published: Saturday, Aug. 3 2013 8:13 p.m. MDT

TUCSON, AZ - NOVEMBER 05:  Quarterback Nick Foles #8 of the Arizona Wildcats is sacked by Reggie Topps #28 of the Utah Utes during the college football game at Arizona Stadium on November 5, 2011 in Tucson, Arizona.  The Utes defeated the Wildcats 34-21.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images) (Christian Petersen, Getty Images) TUCSON, AZ - NOVEMBER 05: Quarterback Nick Foles #8 of the Arizona Wildcats is sacked by Reggie Topps #28 of the Utah Utes during the college football game at Arizona Stadium on November 5, 2011 in Tucson, Arizona. The Utes defeated the Wildcats 34-21. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images) (Christian Petersen, Getty Images)

SALT LAKE CITY — In the comedy film “What about Bob?” neurotic Bob Wiley (Bill Murray) is discussing his agoraphobic tendencies with psychiatrist Leo Marvin (Richard Dreyfuss). Marvin explains the best way to overcome fear is by taking baby steps.

“It means setting small, reasonable goals for yourself, one day at a time, one tiny step at a time,” Marvin says.

He continues, “Don’t think about everything you have to do in order to get out of the building; just think about what you must do to get out of this room. And when you get to the hall, you’ll leave that hall, and so forth, OK?”

Says Bob: “Baby steps. Baby steps. Oh, boy! Baby steps! Baby steps through the office. Baby steps out the door.”

He goes through the door.

“It worked! It worked! All I have to do is take one little step at a time and I can do anything!”

As the movie illustrates, crossing the threshold isn’t always easy. Doesn’t Utah coach Kyle Whittingham know it. With the Utes opening fall camp on Monday, he might want to review the “Bob rules” one more time. There are five Pac-12 teams ranked in the USA Today preseason Top 25. Of its nine conference opponents this year, Utah defeated just two in 2012.

After two years in the conference, it seems Wiley wasn’t the only one unprepared for the outside world. The Utes finished 4-5 in the South Division in 2011, but salvaged respect with a bowl win. Last year, with quarterback and offensive line injuries, they earned just three conference wins and missed bowling for the first time in a decade.

Consequently, media expectations surrounding the Utes are modest as fall camp opens.

“Going to the Pac-12, we knew it was going to be a transition and a process, and a work in progress, I guess you could say,” Whittingham recently said.

So how many baby steps will they need to, well, get out the door? Many Pac-12 watchers were skeptical when the Utes joined the league in 2011. Some thought they would be OK, but Rose Bowl appearances were out of the question. That’s how it has been for Arizona since, oh, forever.

This will be the Wildcats’ 35th year in the conference, but they have yet to smell the roses. (Technically they haven’t picked the poinsettias, either.) Yet it is a program that draws good talent. Ka’Deem Carey led the country in rushing last season.

Arizona has a respectable 20 players on NFL rosters, but still doesn’t have a ton of traction. Since joining what was the Pac-10, the Wildcats have been to only 14 bowl games, though four of those came in the last five years. Just one — the 1994 Fiesta Bowl — when it was part of the pre-BCS Bowl Coalition.

Otherwise, they settled for games in the bowl suburbs: Sun, Insight, Las Vegas, Holiday, Alamo, Copper, Freedom, Aloha and New Mexico.

More often they spent the holidays on the couch.

This could be Utah’s destiny if it doesn’t figure things out, starting Monday. On the bright side, coaches say recruiting has spiked since the move to the Pac-12. But that’s relative, since everyone else in the conference recruits the same kind of talent.

The Utes have hired co-offensive coordinator Dennis Erickson, whose arrival has always brought dramatic numbers. A new first-rate football center just opened its doors, too.

Will those additions put the Utes in the Rose Bowl?

Right now they’d be happy to return to anyone’s bowl. This is their first year with Oregon and Stanford (ranked Nos. 3 and 4 nationally by USA Today) on their conference schedule. The Utes are picked to finish fifth in the Pac-12 South Division, right behind you-know-who: Arizona.

It’s safe to say Utah isn’t going to fix all its problems at once. Anything above .500 would mean improvement. Realistically, the Utes probably won’t do much better than that, so even a trip to the New Mexico Bowl would be welcome.

As Bob Wiley said, “Baby steps get on the bus, baby steps down the aisle, baby steps ...”

Email: rock@desnews.com; Twitter: @therockmonster; Blog: Rockmonster Unplugged

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