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Tom Smart, Deseret News
Utah coach Kyle Whittingham calls a timeout as the Utes play against the University of Oregon at Autzen Stadium Saturday in Eugene, Ore. The Utes lost 31-24.

Is losing a good or bad thing for a football team?

Well, losing is never acceptable. You can't put a silver lining around a loss. But far more may be learned in a loss than a win.

This issue came up this week after two members of the Mountain West's Big Three lost to BCS schools in a critical weekend on a huge stage, a weekend that wounded the league's prestige.

In Provo, BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall wasn't happy with the lopsided loss to Florida State, but he was eager to use the defeat to push his team forward. Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said losses are not good, but they open people's eyes.

The biggest thing lost is an undefeated season. But not the season.

Mendenhall told reporters Monday, "I was disappointed with our loss, but after watching the film, I'm as or more optimistic than ever about our football team and our future and reaching our goals. I am anxious to apply the lessons learned from the Florida State game and to apply them in our first conference game against Colorado State this week."

A few hours later in Salt Lake City, Whittingham told the assembled media: "I'll never say a loss is a good thing."

On the surface, it smacks of good rivalry fodder, a contrarian picture, some even saw it as a Whittingham jab at Mendenhall.

The opposite is true. One had nothing to do with the other. Not connected in any way because they were basically saying the same thing.

Mendenhall explained a day later that losses are essential to shape the identity of programs.

"Just like our own identity, you find a lot more about yourself when you face adversity than when things are easy," the Cougars' coach said. "Our identity is still being formed."

I've known Whittingham since he played with my youngest brother Phill at Provo High. His rhetoric on a loss is no different than Mendenhall's Bronco-isms.

This duo didn't get where they are — having ranked teams — without taking sips from the same philosophical cup.

Whittingham told reporters his players need to understand when they have a setback, it has to be met with resolve and determination.

"I don't want to say we took winning for granted, but a lot of guys in the program haven't experienced a loss yet," Whittingham said.

"I hope it opens some eyes on how hard it is to win a Division I football game and come back with more resolve, focus and determination. We weren't unfocused, but it's obvious we came up short and we have to come back with a better effort.

"We are not going to make any difference in preparation. We believe in our process and it's worked well over the years. This is not a time to panic. We have nine games left and one more non-conference game before a week off. We would have loved for the win streak to go to 100, but the reality is that things end and we have to be able to regroup."

His preparation might remain the same as a week before, but I bet the emphasis on assignments, and execution in some facets of the squad, got a stern review.

The Utes never learned more under Whittingham since 2005 than in the aftermath of that Sept. 22, 2007 road loss at UNLV, 27-0. It turned out to be a good thing, maybe the best.

BYU's program took its biggest step forward in 2005 after losing on the road to San Diego State. Mendenhall routinely references that loss as the turning point in his program.

I'll submit that the Utes and Cougars will grow more this week than they have since any time last season. Folks lacking focus will see things with eyes wide open, their necks jerked to Position A. Inexperienced players will understand something they guessed at a week ago. Missed assignments will be drilled into every brain cell on the roster. Those who were a little cocky are feasting on humble pie.

These head coaches will even find some traction in dealing with some assistant coaches.

The result is two teams who are better today than they were last Friday.

Count on it.

e-mail: dharmon@desnews.com