Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
Utah running back Zack Moss scores a touchdown as Utah and Washington State play Rice-Eccles Stadium at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 11, 2017. The Utes have lost the last five games against ranked opponents, including last year's 33-25 setback to Washington State.

SALT LAKE CITY — Back in the innocent Mountain West Conference days, the Utah Utes learned to sneak up on people. They would appear as unexpectedly as a summer cold. Opponents realized too late they had been snookered.

But as Saturday’s game against No. 10 Washington approaches, it’s natural to wonder what happened to those intrepid Utah teams. Top-25 opponents were a delight for the Utes, who in the 1990s won four in a row and five of six. In the late 2000s they claimed four of five against ranked teams. During the 2003-08 seasons, in the pre-Pac-12 days, they went 7-3.

In those early years of self-discovery, the Utes were a daring and dashing story. The better-known schools just kept falling: Pitt, Oregon, Georgia Tech, UCLA, TCU, Alabama. Also on the list of victims was perennially ranked BYU. That was a test all its own. Those were the glory years, even though the Utes were in a smaller conference. During that seven-year period in which they won both the Fiesta and Sugar bowls, four of their seven wins came when the Utes themselves were ranked in the top 10.

Nowadays, though, playing ranked teams has become a clear and present danger. Utah has lost five straight and eight of the last 10. Since joining the Pac-12, the Utes are 6-14 against ranked opponents.

Why is it now harder to win those games than it was a decade, or even two decades ago?

Kyle Whittingham doesn’t shed much light on the subject.

“The expectation is the same as it is every week, and that is to try to win the game,” Whittingham said. “We don’t put a whole lot of stock — or worry, I should say — or concern into who is ranked where or what. We just prepare and get game plans ready and try to win.”

Since their last win over a ranked team — in 2015 against No. 23 Cal — they have lost to No. 4 Washington, No. 9 Colorado, No. 13 USC, No. 19 Washington State and No. 16 Washington.

Several factors have figured into Utah’s declining success against ranked teams. Among them:

  • Scheduling. It’s easier to beat a ranked opponent if you play New Mexico or UNLV the week before or after the big game, instead of, say, Washington State or Colorado. As time has proven, a steady diet of talented opponents takes a toll.
  • Injuries. Though all teams have them, during the Jordan Wynn/Travis Wilson quarterback era the Utes lost nine of their 16 games versus ranked teams.
  • Prominence. Ever since Utah discombobulated Alabama in the 2009 Sugar Bowl, opponents have prepared more diligently. Utah’s not a trivia answer anymore.
  • Familiarity. Since playing BYU in 2012, every ranked opponent the Utes have met (18) has been from the Pac-12. Each team in the conference except Cal has won at least one of those games.
  • Progress. While Utah was improving its talent and depth, so was practically everyone else.

“As far as closing the gap, yeah, we hope we have, personnel-wise. That’s why you recruit and that’s something we feel like has happened,” Whittingham said. “Over the last five or six years we’ve been able to upgrade our roster across the board. It’s a constantly moving target though.”

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He went on to call the Utes an unfinished product and noted that because other teams are also getting stronger, “it’s just a constant process of recruiting 365 days a year now.”

With a 2-0 record, Utah is again on the verge of being ranked. In this week’s AP poll, the Utes were first among teams also receiving votes. Now they face what Whittingham considers a superb opponent. They can beat Washington; they did so in 2015. Matching up isn’t as imposing as it once was. But what they don’t have anymore is the element of surprise. Going incognito is an advantage all its own.