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Monson: For Utes, Pac-12 reality bites like a four-legged dog

Published October 12, 2011 3:46 pm

Utah football • Coach saw it coming, but move to Pac-12 is tougher than many expected.
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"Illusions commend themselves to us because they save us pain and allow us to enjoy pleasure instead. We must therefore accept it without complaint when they sometimes collide with a bit of reality against which they are dashed to pieces."

Coach Sigmund Freud spoke those words, referring to a football team and its fans that eagerly stepped up from success in a lesser league, dreams on fire, to three straight losses in a greater one, shattered embers burning.

Coach Abraham Lincoln put it this way: "How many legs does a dog have if you call the tail a leg? Four. Calling a tail a leg doesn't make it a leg."

Which is to say, the Utes are in the Pac-12, but not of the Pac-12. They are a dog with four legs.

They now are a BCS-league team, an appellation some mistakenly thought automatically would make them a better team. Turns out, it's merely a label, a designation coming at a steep, competitive cost. As they've found themselves struggling to adjust to their new environs in their new league, somebody stopped payment on their reality check.

In those three conference losses — one on the road and two at home — they have been outscored 89-42, putting up 14 points in each and allowing the margin of defeat to grow from nine points to 17 to 21.

While listening to Kyle Whittingham answer questions following the home loss to Arizona State on Oct. 8, I reflected back on his expression in June, 2010, at the party in the same stadium announcing Utah's invitation to the Pac-12. Everybody else was cheering and celebrating. He, on the other hand, looked like a man whose molars had just been extracted by a plumber with pliers. He essentially said that day he could see the locomotive that was rolling his way.

He may have been the only one.

Right now, the best news for Utah football is that it doesn't have to play a Pac-12 opponent this week, traveling instead to face Pittsburgh. That it might be able to handle, having already taken out Montana State and BYU. But moving on to the next week to play at Cal? There are few sure things in the Pac-12, even though the schedule softens with Oregon State, Arizona, UCLA, Washington State and Colorado. And that doesn't even take into account the good fortune of not having to play Stanford and Oregon this season.

Being real and all, let's say it the way it is: Playing in the Mountain West was much easier, offering up those forgiving runs against New Mexico and Wyoming and Colorado State and UNLV and San Diego State.

The current Utes likely would be undefeated in the MWC — until they played Boise State — and ranked, and everybody would be saying how good they are and how they could compete with BCS-league teams, week in and week out. Ten turnovers in two games would be unthinkable.

When Utah was placed in the Pac-12's South Division, a lot of people around here erroneously thought it had a real shot at winning the thing, with USC ineligible, gloriously qualifying for the league championship game in the Utes' first season.

As Whittingham said it after the loss against ASU, reality can be harsh: "Obviously, [it's] a done deal."

It was probably a done deal before the games even started.

The train was rolling down the tracks.

This iteration of the Utes, while talented in spots, is not the best team in program history. That was a point made by Mike Leach, the former head coach at Texas Tech and a good friend of Whittingham's, during an interview on Oct. 10. He, in so many words, said the Utes had to adjust to their new league, maybe get more players, and that would take some time.

But it could be argued that the undefeated Utes of the 2008 season would lose games in this season's Pac-12, too. Even that year in the Mountain West, they squeaked by a couple of opponents. The only Utah team that would have made this season's Pac-12 championship game is the unbeaten 2004 Utes, and that was by far the best Utah team ever.

Translation: Utah has a lot of ground to cover before it reaches steady elite status in its new league. The comparisons to Arizona and Arizona State and their undulating paths coming in from the old WAC are not out of line. It will take time, in large part because of the systemic disadvantages the Utes have faced for years as a non-automatic-qualifying program.

They may have been good enough, in their best seasons, to bust the BCS and win a couple of big bowl games, but beating better Pac-12 teams on a regular basis, at home and on the road, is a tall order. Even in the Mountain West, the Utes only won one outright league title under Whittingham.

This Pac-12 thing is going to be hard.

In coachspeak, when illusions collide with reality, you find out real quick, even if you call it one, a dog's tail isn't a leg.

Gordon Monson hosts "The Gordon Monson Show" weekdays from 2-6 p.m. on 97.5 FM/1280 AM The Zone. He can be reached at gmonson@sltrib.com. Twitter: @GordonMonson. —

Whittingham's starts

After five games:

Year Record

2005 3-2

2006 4-1

2007 2-3

2008 5-0

2009 4-1

2010 5-0

2011 2-3

Inside • Utah QB Jon Hays ready to bounce back. > D3






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