1 of 2

SALT LAKE CITY — Down three late in the fourth quarter, Utah lined up for a field goal against USC in the first-ever Pac-12 Conference game.

The Trojans blocked the kick and returned it for a touchdown, dashing the Utes' upset bid just two short years ago.

National TV audience? Check. Suspense? Double check. But the Utes fell short, keeping it from becoming what could have been a program-defining win in their new conference.

Two seasons later, the Utes are still lacking that signature Pac-12 win that puts them on the map.

Transitioning from BCS Buster to the invitation-only club, the Utes are now fully immersed in what has been a baptism by fire that hasn't been easy on the new kid on the block. Utah has had its chances, coming awfully close to turning the corner and becoming a force to be reckoned with. Yet time and time again the Utes have gone up in smoke.

In 2012, the Utes went up two touchdowns in front of a national Thursday night ESPN audience before eventually losing to USC at home.

Later in the season, Utah was driving to tie the game in the third quarter against the 8th ranked Oregon State Beavers, just to fumble it on the three-yard line.

Utah had a chance to go on the road and win against UCLA, which ended up representing the Pac-12 South in the conference championship game. It lost by seven.

So close, yet so far away.

Arguably Utah's two best conference wins came in 2011, a 31-6 home win over UCLA and a 34-21 win over Arizona in Tucson. Both of those school's coaches were fired either during or at the end of the season.

Now the Utes sit in a familiar situation — one that they seem to thrive under.

In its first two seasons, Utah was picked near the top of the Pac-12 South in the preseason media polls. Although the official polls for this year won't be released until the end of July, early projections peg the Utes near the bottom of the pack.

In an almost no pressure situation, Utah can now go back to what it does best — defy expectations. Utah plays its best football when no one gives it a shot. Just see BCS bowl wins over Alabama and Pittsburgh as perfect examples.

Just like in the previous two seasons, 2013 will provide plenty of opportunities for the Utes to finally make that splash in the Pac-12. Home games against Stanford, Oregon State and UCLA, combined with road contests at Oregon and USC, provide ample chances to further validate their conference membership.

Sure, Utah has seven wins in two years of Pac-12 play, but those wins have all come against teams that finished with a losing record.

Being invited to the party is one thing, getting the number of the gorgeous girl wearing the black dress is another.

Win at home against the Cardinal, the Beavers or the Bruins, and the Utes will have taken that next step. Upset the Ducks in Eugene or the Trojans in Los Angeles and Utah could solidify its foundation as an up and coming program in conference.

Most fans would agree that the success of 2013 comes down to three things: 1) returning to a bowl game, 2) beating BYU and 3) a program-defining Pac-12 win. Do that, and the Utes will have climbed the next rung in the Pac-12 Conference ladder.

Robert Jackson is the online sports director for ksl.com and contributes to Utah coverage on DeseretNews.com. He has covered the Utes since 2008. Follow him on Twitter: @rojackKSL