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Utah's football expectations need to soar

Utah's football expectations need to soar

(Jeffrey D. Allred/Deseret News)



Estimated read time: 4-5 minutes

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SALT LAKE CITY — The pressure now has increased exponentially.

Before the season, the primary purpose of the Utah football program was to reach six wins and qualify for a bowl game, thus quelling any talk of coaching changes. Not anymore.

A fast start to the season has changed the perception of the season. Given that the Utes are 3-0, a 6-6 final regular-season record obviously means they would finish the last nine games at 3-6 and thus failing for the fourth consecutive year to be above .500 in Pac-12 games.

The revised standard is now at 7-5, with eight regular-season wins a distinct possibility. Foolhardy dreamers may even envision the Utes going 9-3.

"We, for sure, have our expectations set very high," said senior receiver Dres Anderson.

Before going crazy, it's worth noting Utah has been here before. Although they haven't started 3-0 since being a Mountain West Conference member in 2010, the Utes have gone 11-1 in non-conference games as part of the Pac-12.

Conference games are another story. Three years into the much tougher competition, Utah is a miserable 9-18 in the Pac-12, bottoming out at 2-7 last season.

But something is different about this year's team. And we're not talking about another new offensive coordinator or the curious decision to forbid the local media to interview assistant coaches.

It's about the talent, particularly speed. Utah has more of it and is better equipped to compete over the course of the nine-game grind that awaits the next 10 weeks.

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"We're faster," said coach Kyle Whittingham. "We're better on the perimeters with the wide receivers and the secondary. I know we're getting good quarterback play right now. That's got to continue."

Yes it does.

Lousy quarterback play, in part attributed to injuries, is the predominant reason Utah has been firmly planted in fifth place in the South Division, ahead of only putrid Colorado. But Travis Wilson is healthy and much improved, especially when it comes to ball security.

Through three games, Wilson has thrown seven touchdown passes and no interceptions. In nine games last season, he threw 16 touchdown passes and 16 interceptions.

Seven or eight wins are well within reach as long as Wilson remains upright — literally. His decision to go airborne 7 yards short of a first down last week against Michigan has to rank among the worst Wilson has ever made.

"Definitely got to be smarter in a situation like that," admitted Wilson, whose face got smashed during the awkward collision with the Michigan defense and the ground.

To some degree, Utah's great start needs to be put in perspective. Michigan's offense has not scored a touchdown in eight quarters against two Power 5 teams (Notre Dame beat the Wolverines 31-0), and Utah's other two opponents — Idaho State and Fresno State — are a combined 0-5 against Division I teams.

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But unlike some teams around the country with glossy records, Utah won't have to apologize or justify its schedule come December. Even if some teams haven't lived up to preseason expectations at this point, the Pac-12 is still strong and stocked with several outstanding programs.

Based on this week's rankings, Utah will play five of the top 18 teams in the next seven games. The other two teams — Washington State and Oregon State — feature future NFL quarterbacks.

To meet the newfound expectations, the Utes need to go 3-1 in conference home games. Assuming they beat Washington State and Arizona, the Utes would have to knock off USC for the first time as a Pac 12 member or stun national championship contender Oregon.

Utah also has to beat downtrodden Colorado and find a way to win on the road. If the Utes manage to split road games — where they are 3-10 in conference play — against UCLA, Oregon State, Arizona State and Stanford, then a great season is in order.

The key will be avoiding long losing streaks, which Utah hasn't done the last two years. A four-game losing streak in 2012 was followed by a five-game skid last season.

"I just think we're improved across the board, but probably everyone else in the conference is as well," Whittingham said. "We've got some things going for us right now, but it's a tough conference. Every week will be a challenge."

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