Why should we care now? The dilemma of the spoiled Ute fan

Last Saturday’s ugly loss to North Carolina made it vividly apparent that the Utes have more issues than Newsweek, effectively ending all comparisons between this year’s squad and the Fiesta Bowl champs of nine months ago.

Ute diehards bemoan turnovers, penalties and the closet case OxyContin addict operating the game clock at Texas Christian-but the truth is the Utes were the better team on neither occasion in their two losses this season.

TCU rumbled to 230 yards on the ground against a battered linebacker corps that has seen depth chart changes every 10 minutes. Sophomore Kyle Brady has added stability at the position, but the Utes still have yet to prove they can consistently stop an adequate rushing attack.

Things were looking slightly better last weekend in Chapel Hill as the Tar Heels weren’t able to get much going on the ground, and the U secondary gave quarterback Matt Baker fits, at least until the Casey Evans penalty. Nonetheless, Brian Johnson and the offense failed to sustain anything for most of the second half, and the Utes fell flat against a team they easily dismantled 46-16 last year in Rice-Eccles.

Now the U’s “cupcake” schedule seems to present enough challenges to make winning a third straight MWC title an unlikely proposition. Colorado State is relatively evenly matched against the Utes, while BYU and Wyoming might well be favored against Kyle Whittingham’s crew by the time those crucial conference match-ups roll around.

The Utes now share the sad fate of roughly 80 other Division-I teams: mediocrity.

Though Quinton Ganther, Steve Fifita, Spencer Toone, Eric Weddle and other key players from 2004 have continued to perform at a high level in 2005, nobody has come close to plugging the cosmic, anti-gravital void that stars Alex Smith, Morgan Scalley, Paris Warren, Steve Savoy and Urban Meyer left behind at the U.

Which is not to imply that Johnson, Evans, John Madsen, Brent Casteel, Travis LaTendresse and Whittingham haven’t done admirable jobs in their stead during 2005-only that Ute fans have to get used to measuring expectations if they aim to avoid perpetual perturbation.

It was everybody’s hope that last year’s glorious success would lend the U enough credibility to become permanent national contenders.

Unfortunately, the effect of Meyer and Co.’s departure has officially reached the “worst-case scenario” stage, based on most preseason forecasts. If the question was “Can Utah…?” the answer, at this point, is “No.”

Of course, the only reason they appear to be in dire straits now is that they achieved so much in the recent past. If the Utes still had a shot at a MWC title in a typical year, nobody would be too disappointed-but we were fortunate enough to have our most optimistic dreams exceeded, and now we have to learn how to be excited by mediocrity again.

Some believe that “fan pressure” is essential to maintaining a successful program, if only because fans of major programs usually have high expectations. Obviously that’s not really as much of a cause as a result of winning, and it probably wouldn’t be too profitable for Ute fans to start acting like USC fans. If a woman went to a shrink feeling bad about her appearance, it’s doubtful she would be advised to enter the Miss Universe competition.

Maybe this proposal sounds too defeatist for a New York Yankees or a Manchester United fan to consider, but U fans ought to detach themselves a little bit and let the Utes regulate their hopes and dreams for a while as the bittersweet symphony dies down.

Just make BYU-Utah your personal national championship game and pretend the Mountain West Conference is the ACC for a while. And, from time to time, take a break from your newfound alternate reality to bask in the memory of 2004.

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