It's hard to avoid comparing the two best teams in Utah football history.
Both the 2004 and 2008 teams had strong senior leadership, a favorable schedule that featured Utah's toughest opponents at Rice-Eccles Stadium, clutch special-teams play, a head coach whose stock is skyrocketing, an offense that put up points in bunches, and a defense that made it look easy at times.
Of course, Ute fans will reluctantly recall what that 2005 Utah team provided as an encore: a lack of team chemistry, toughness, and consistency, punctuated by a nightmare three-game stretch mid-season that included losses at Chapel Hill against the Tar Heels, a goal-line failure at Fort Collins against the Rams, and a mystifying loss to the Aztecs at home.
Redemption eventually came in the form of a lightly-regarded JC transfer by the name of Brett Ratliff, who led the Utes to exciting victories over BYU and Georgia Tech.
There are scary similarities between post-2004 and post-2008: new, inexperienced players at QB, kicker, punter, and two spots on the offensive line, new coordinators on offense and defense, the burden of high expectations, and a tough schedule that includes having to travel to Forth Worth and Provo.
However, here are the three reasons why 2009 will turn out better for the Utes:
1. Kyle Whittingham
Entering his fifth year at the helm of Utah football, he's experienced a variety of hardships and adversity.
He's seen his team play too tight and too lose. He's dealt with injuries and bad attitudes. He's been in games where the calls didn't work in his favor. He's been in games where his team needed one more play to win, but came up short.
He's learned what makes this team tick, and has provided a steady hand in leading the Utes through this current 14-game winning streak.
This has also allowed him to keep the coaching staff intact, as he promoted coaches from within to fill the vacant coordinator positions to maintain continuity.
Urban Meyer took the Utah program to a level it would've never achieved under Ron McBride during his two-year stint.
He also recognized how close they were to being an elite team, so instead of building a team for the long term, he used his 2003 and 2004 recruiting classes to bring in players that could help sooner rather than later.
This worked great while he was in Salt Lake, but it left the Utes short-handed in 2005.
Coach Whittingham, on the other hand, has built a sustainable program ever since he took over, and his recruiting classes are proof of that.
Look at any position on Utah's roster, and you won't find a lack of athleticism or talent anywhere. Even at quarterback, where there's little FBS experience, all three players who are competing for the job are very capable individuals.
Perhaps the most important reason why 2009 won't be a repeat of 2005 is that this group of seniors have already experienced 2005, and they realize it requires even more preparation and hard work to defend the title than it required to earn the title.
They acquired that bitter taste of how it feels to underachieve and disappoint the Ute faithful has motivated them since the start of winter workouts in late January.
There is nothing easy about Utah's schedule in 2009. Oregon is a darkhorse to win the PAC-10, while UNLV, Air Force, and Colorado St have something to prove, and TCU and BYU are hungry to build on their recent success—Nothing would please them more than to knock Utah off their perch atop the MWC.
But even though Utah won't be able to march through their schedule undefeated to another BCS bowl game, they're in far better shape to be in contention for back-to-back MWC titles.
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