DALLAS — On the sliding scale of football success, it’s hard to argue against a certain tried and true measurement. Forget the analytics and pay no attention to the RPI. The all-time best way to assess a team is the easiest and most obvious: Check the record.
Whether a win for Utah in Tuesday’s Heart of Dallas Bowl would transform the season into a success can be debated. But a loss can’t. That would put the Utes below the waterline for the season.
So there you go, Utes.
Wear yourselves out.
In 25 years, someone perusing the schedule will come across 2017 and the proof will be right there. A win against West Virginia would give Utah a 7-6 season. At least it would be on the positive side of the ledger.
Coaches carefully choose words when it comes to these things. They are happy to say how many true freshmen played in a game, how loyal is their fan base, and how their linemen are doing in the weight room. They can even expound, to some extent, on whether their season was a success.
Where they most struggle is defining what is failure.
Can a team have had a good season if it finishes 6-7?
“Yeah,” said Kyle Whittingham, followed by a short laugh. “We’d much rather finish 7-6. But we’re just working hard and hoping to have a good showing. But I’d a lot rather be 7-6.”
In other words, he’s not going to even think about the reverse.
So I’ll speak for him: A losing season is never a success, not even if you went, say, 1-11 the previous year.
That would be improvement, not success.
Because Whittingham didn’t elaborate on what-ifs, and because players are often less wary in these matters, I asked two Utes if a 6-7 season could be called a success.
“Awww, no,” said senior defensive tackle Lowell Lotulelei.
Then he swung into noncommittal mode.
“I think going out and being a senior, this is really the last game, pretty much senior night, so I think it would be the perfect way to end out the season with a win.”
We knew that.
I next moved on to defensive end Kylie Fitts, who did the same thing by turning a negative question into a positive answer.
“I want to win it,” Fitts said. “I want to finish with a win.”
OK, so that’s established.
So far in my investigative deep dive, I’ve learned the Utes don’t want to lose, but haven’t gathered much on what happens if they do. Here’s an educated guess: For Utah, a sub-.500 record would not, could not indicate a good season.
In some ways, the Utes came close to a fine year. (Don’t they always?) They lost three Pac-12 games by a combined seven points.
Otherwise, they would have been shooting for a 10-win season and playing in a more meaningful bowl. Instead, they’re competing in the Whozit Bowl.
At least they have a reputable opponent in West Virginia.
In honesty, there’s no way this one ends up happily if the Utes lose. Merely earning a berth doesn’t matter a ton in this era of everybody-gets-a-medal.
Just don’t mention that to Whittingham.
“A lot of people talk about the bowls not meaning as much anymore; they used to mean something where you had to actually obtain something,” a reporter began last week.
“They mean something to us,” Whittingham cut in.
“Yeah, that’s what I’m saying,” the reporter continued. “Obviously you just barely get over the cuff, how much does that mean to you?”
“Everybody that’s playing in a bowl, it means a lot to — coaches and players alike,” Whittingham said. “I don’t know who’s making those statements or who they’re referring to — the fans or whatever — but I know for coaches and players, it certainly means something.”
They’re both right. Minor bowls don’t mean much to the outside world, where ticket sales and TV viewership count. But for the players on a .500 team, a bowl win gives them a graceful end to a bad season. Otherwise it’s a season nobody — coach or otherwise — should ever speak of again.