Before 2011, it was one of the great theoretical questions in college football: What would happen if you plopped an elite non-automatic qualifying team into the middle of an AQ conference?
Utah provided us an answer the past two seasons, one in which neither the pro-AQ folks nor the pro-non-AQ folks can claim complete victory -- as in: "They'd get dominated!" versus "They'd be just the same!"
The Utes have been respectable if slightly south of mediocre in the Pac-12, going 7-11 in conference play the past two seasons, albeit without facing Oregon or Stanford. That's better than Big 12 transplant Colorado as well as Washington State, California and Arizona but worse than seven other conference teams.
The Utes certainly didn't get dominated. But they also weren't much of a threat to push into the top third of the conference, as they were annually in the Mountain West.
"We definitely know we are in a harder league now," Utah quarterback Travis Wilson said. "There are no bad teams in the Pac-12. Every game is a challenge. But that's something we can't hold onto or think about. We've got to go into every game believing we are the better team and we are going to win."
Of course, Wilson was a true freshman last year -- he took over the starting job in game six against UCLA -- so he never played in the Mountain West. And that's part of the story for Utah. The strapping 6-foot-6, 240 pounder is a big "maybe" as the Utes seek to advance in the pecking order of the Conference of Quarterbacks.
The Utes defense has been respectable in Pac-12 play. The offense? Not so much.
Now, the Pac-12 blog -- and more than a few Utah insiders -- would counter that if quarterback Jordan Wynn hadn't proven a magnet for shoulder injuries, things might have been different. Just ask California fans about the 2009 Poinsettia Bowl. But, well, football isn't much of a place for woulda-coulda-shoulda.
Wilson didn't blow anyone away last year. He passed for a Pac-12-low 109 yards per game with seven touchdowns and six interceptions, but it's worth noting that his efficiency rating was better than Washington State's Jeff Tuel and Connor Halliday and essentially equal to Washington's Keith Price.
And there were plenty of moments when Wilson did things that raised impressed eyebrows. He's got potential.
Not to read too much into a coiffure, but Wilson knows his role will expand this fall compared to last and he needs to look the part. He's no longer the wide-eyed-but-trying-to-play-it-cool youngster who was handed the ball at midseason, just a few months after high school graduation (Wilson participated in 2012 spring practices). He's a returning starting quarterback in the Pac-12.
"I want to make this my team," he said. "I want to lead all these people. I know they have faith in me to do it. I want to improve on being a vocal leader."
Wilson and his offensive teammates are adjusting to the arrival of Dennis Erickson, who is sharing coordinating duties with Brian Johnson, who held the post in a solo capacity a year ago. Erickson was hired to provide the Utes' offense an identity, but Johnson remains the QBs coach and Wilson's primary conduit to the 2013 scheme.
"It's good," Wilson said. "They are both excellent coaches. They feed off each other. They both help me in different ways. I'm glad with the situation we have right now. I think it was a good thing to do."
As with Wynn the previous two years, Wilson needs to come through because the depth chart behind him is pretty questionable: A sophomore walk-on and three freshmen.
Utah figures to face some challenges in 2013. It welcomes back just 12 starters and the schedule takes a major uptick with the addition of both Stanford and Oregon, top-five preseason teams. The Utes seem likely the fall in behind UCLA, Arizona State, USC and Arizona in the South Division pecking order, at least from a preseason perspective.
But Wilson provides a point A of hope. If he leads a solid passing attack, which Utah hasn't had as a Pac-12 team, and questions get answered on both lines, the Utes might surprise some folks.