The last two weekends for the University of Utah football team has been challenging but the next two games for Utah may speak volumes about the Utes ability to compete in the PAC-12 next year. There have been some talking heads and columnists who have felt that Utah would walk into the Pac-12 next year and based on talent, USC being down and recent success that “the U of Under armor” would roll through the Pac-12 south and earn a date with the north champion. Looking at whom Utah would face in a vacuum; Arizona, Arizona St, UCLA , Colorado; The Utes are certainly better. The issue however is not whether or not the “U” is a better program than its new Pac-12 neighbors but can the Utes handle the hangover that occurs for team after playing a physical game the week before, and this four game swing beginning with TCU and ending with BYU is an early litmus test.
Anybody, who was at the TCU game, or saw the TCU game came away with the same feeling; Utah was dominated physically in that game. Utah may have been ready for the game and may have had a game plan that may have worked, had it been playing a program that was similarly talented, the problem is that TCU was more talented at almost every position on the field. In other words TCU was bigger, faster and stronger. The Horned Frogs not only beat Utah, they beat Utah up, unlike any team has done to the Utes in the last 10 years. There were programs that have been physical with the Utes; New Mexico (when it was coached by Rocky Long) had a history of physically challenging the Utes, and BYU has been physical with the Utes traditionally, but usually the Utes have the luxury of playing a program that is not as physical or as good, the weekend after a physical game, so therefore Utah is able to heal in the season because they get to rest frontline starters after halftime, with Utah leading 42-7 the week after playing a physical opponent.
This four game stretch with TCU, Notre Dame , San Diego St. and BYU is probably the first time in a while that Utah will play four physical teams in a row. The physical game with TCU and the ensuing hangover may have been the primary reason that Utah got “pantsed” at Notre Dame. Notre Dame is still a physical program so there may continue to be a hangover for the “U” when it face San Diego St this weekend. San Diego St. has evolved into a physical program under Brady Hoke and former New Mexico head coach Rocky Long, who is the defensive coordinator on the Mesa which further add to the Utes misery and dealing with physical teams. The Utes final game is the “Holy War” and BYU always plays the Utes physically, so these last two games and four in total should provide a glimpse into what Utah will encounter as they move to the Pac-12.
There will be some who will make the argument that the PAC-12 overall is not a physical conference, the best team in the conference is Oregon and they are mostly a finesse program. However I would beg to differ. The Pac-10 has always suffered from the misconception that the conference programs are not physical but watch a couple of the programs play and you will realize there are programs that are just as physical as any in the country. Stanford is a physical program and has to play that way to compete and as long as Jim Harbaugh is getting his mail at a Palo Alto Zip code “the Ferd” will be physical. USC’s history is to be physical, yes we remember the skilled position talent the Trojans had but they usually had defenses that were physical, Washington’s staff is from the USC school of thought so enough said and Arizona State has one of the more physical defenses on the Pac-10.
The old adage for many who predict games, is that in college teams only have enough emotional maturity to get up for 3 -4 games a year, additionally expect a letdown after an emotional game or a physical game, even programs used to the turnaround are not able to handle the back to back physical nature of conference play. There are examples this year alone; Oregon struggled with Cal after an emotional/ physical game versus USC, Texas won a physical/emotional game with Nebraska and has not been right since. Virginia Tech lost and emotional/physical game with Boise and lost to James Madison the next week. Yes, the hangover of playing a physical game happens to all programs and is very common, but the great programs can overcome those challenges.
The next two games will be games that Utah fans and soon to be Pac-12 rivals will be looking to with some intrigue. These games may help handicap next year’s Pac-12 race and how much of a real threat the Utes will be in the coming years, but with all of that said there are many programs in the MWC, WAC or C-USA that would trade with Utah in a second and have the opportunity to play in a BCS conference with the money and exposure.