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SALT LAKE CITY — What once was a season full of hope for BYU and Utah football is now a season grounded in cold, hard reality. The Cougars are playing .500 football at 4-4, and the Utes (2-5, 0-4 Pac-12) own just one FBS win - over BYU.
With the schedules not getting any easier in coming years, a former star quarterback and former athletic director were mixed on what the future may hold for both schools.
Former BYU athletic director Val Hale suggested more losses will become regular for Utah and BYU as they compete at the highest levels, while former University of Utah and NFL quarterback Scott Mitchell said fans should keep their expectations high.
Mitchell: More from offense
"It drives me crazy to watch both schools. I'm just going to tell you," exclaimed Mitchell, also the former head football coach at Springville High School. "I like to see more out of offenses. I just do."
Mitchell said Bronco Mendenhall and Kyle Whittingham are excellent, but defensive-minded coaches.
"They play it a little tight to the vest - and there's nothing wrong with that, take care of the football and all that," Mitchell said. "I just come from the mindset of we're going to play to win and we're going to go after you, and I think sometimes both schools hold it a little too tight to the vest with their quarterbacks. You have to give your quarterbacks opportunities to gain confidence in those tough situations."
While the quarterback situations differ at Utah and BYU, both schools have seen their struggles. Riley Nelson to date has thrown more interceptions than touchdowns (10 INTs, 8 TDs). The Utes have dabbled with two quarterbacks since the career-ending injury to Jordan Wynn. Recently, coaches have favored getting freshman Travis Wilson experience over playing senior Jon Hays.
Any success I've ever had has been because of the people up front.
Both offenses have struggled mightily. BYU currently ranks 82nd in the FBS in total offense (377.38 ypg), 87th in scoring offense (24.13 ppg) and 100th in turnover margin (-0.75 turnovers per game). Utah ranks 105th in scoring offense (20.14 ppg), 109th in rushing offense (105.00 ypg) and 114th in total offense (303.29 ypg). Utah is also 87th in the nation in sacks allowed (2.29 sacks per game).
Mitchell said depth and recruiting are going to be factors going forward for BYU and Utah, and suggested even the Utes' skill positions are not top flight in the Pac-12.
"It just appears that some of the skill positions -- they're still a little bit behind some of the schools," Mitchell said. "These other schools have a lot of blue chip athletes, just really good athletes. So being able to recruit and bring those players to Utah is one of the more pressing needs there.
The BYU offensive line has struggled this season to run block and offer quarterbacks enough time to make quality throws. The Cougars currently rank 102nd in sacks allowed (2.75 sacks per game).
"Having an offensive line that is intact and plays well together, there's a lot of communication that goes on there, there's a reliance on each other - that's a key part to anything," Mitchell said. "Any success I've ever had has been because of the people up front."
Hale: Revise expectations
Hale said he recognized the challenges to independence long before the Cougars made the leap, and fans should start revising their expectations.
"To expect the team to go undefeated every year is unrealistic," Hale said. "BYU's fans ought to get used to the fact that they're going to play a great schedule, and they're going to win some of those games, and they're going to lose some of those games."
Hale said he believed 10-win seasons would continue to be an attainable goal for BYU, albeit it would likely happen with less frequency with the tougher schedules. Next year, the Cougars host Texas, Boise State and Utah while tripping to Notre Dame, Wisconsin and ever-improving Utah State.
To expect the team to go undefeated every year is unrealistic.
For the Utes, Hale said he sees similarities to the Pac-12 schools to the South - Arizona and Arizona State. They also saw struggles as they left the WAC in the late 1970s to join the Pac-10.
"Most years, you're probably going to be in the middle of the pack," Hale said. "It's just the way it goes."
Regardless of this season's less-than-stellar start and the daunting future, Mitchell contended fans should not lower their expectations and said both BYU and Utah are capable of great things in their more challenging environs. He pointed to Florida, Florida State and Miami as evidence multiple programs in a state with strong fan support can be very successful.
"Let's not make any excuses," Mitchell said. "I think all of us need to up our games and not just be happy to be there - but let's be great while we're there."