For the first time since 2002, Utah was home for the holidays. The streak of bowl game appearances ended at nine as the depth and quality of the Pac 12 caught up with the Utes. The cries of disappointment and calls for heads to rolls seem justified for a fan base that is used to nothing less than eight win years.
While on paper it was the most difficult season for Utah football in a decade, the 2012 season was a good thing for the future of Utah football. A 5 and 7 record resets both the expectations of the fan base and the athletic department. It resets the unrealistic expectations that have been placed on Kyle Whittingham and his staff. It resets all future expectations for Utah football and brings them down to an attainable level.
Utah football fans are used to one thing; winning. With nine consecutive bowl appearances, four 10+ win seasons, and two BCS bowl appearances (and victories), the epectation is that Utah will always win.
The size of the Utah football fan base has grown exponentially since the arrival of Urban Meyer. Winning will do that. Fans that jumped on board back during the 2003 and 2004 years know nothing but dominant teams. These fans don't know how to lose. They've never gone through a losing season, down cycle, or difficulties, until now.
5-7 isn't fun. A losing season never is, but it allows fans to lower their expectations of the program to a more realistic level. Anyone who thought that Utah would be able to consistently compete for a Pac 12 South title is and was delusionally optimistic. Yes, Utah will win Pac 12 South titles. Yes, Utah will win Pac 12 conference championships and play in the Rose Bowl, but to expect them to compete at a level reserved for the creme de la creme of the conference was turning a blind eye to the struggles that teams face when moving up in competition, and the reality of what Utah football is.
Utah is not at a level that makes consistent nine to ten win seasons anything more than a pipe dream. Utah may never get there. This isn't USC or Oregon. This isn't even UCLA, Stanford, or Washington. The sooner that the Utah faithful can come to grips with that, the better off the program will be. On a year to year basis, Utah shouldn't be able to compete with those teams. They don't have the money, prestige, or recruiting ability to do so.
Some may argue that Boise State has been able to hang with the big boys. The Broncos' model is great, but it wouldn't sustain them over the course of a 12 game season in a BCS conference. Put Boise State in the Pac 12, and they're Oregon State.
Let's look to the future, and assume Utah goes 6-6 in 2013 and 5-7 in 2014, both of which seem reasonable at this time. Will it be time to panic? No. This is now Utah football. You wanted to play with the boys and this is what happens. All of the heavy hitters have down periods. USC was poor for years in the 90s. Alabama struggled for years earlier in the century. Miami hasn't been elite for almost a decade.
The move to the Pac 12 was not a mistake. Utah will go to better bowl games, play in bigger games, and will increase the profile of both the athletic program and the school, while generating more money for the University. But, seasons like this are going to happen more often than Utah fans may like or be willing to accept.
BCS level football has its ups and downs. Utah is now down. They will rise again, and eventually they will fall again, and that's ok. The future seasons of eight and nine wins will mean more than the 10 win seasons of the Mountain West Conference, both in prestige and fan lore. Wins in the Mountain West were more of a relief than they were exhilarating. Expecting to win every week leaves little joy when you you do get that W. Without the downs, the ups don't seem as special. 10 win seasons won't be the norm, but when they do happen they'll be thrown into Utah lore and something the Ute faithful will remember for years.
10 and 2 in the Pac 12 is fun, but Utah isn't there yet, and may never get there. The fan base needs to accept that, or Ute football may never be fun again.
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