The most disappointed Pac-12 teams as 2012 winds down, other than USC, are the conference's newest members: Colorado and Utah. While both came into the season with very different expectations, both fell well short of their hopes.
So their meeting Friday at Colorado is a bit of a Deflated Bowl.
Utah welcomed back 18 starters -- 16 position players -- from a team that went 8-5 overall and 4-5 in Year 1 of Pac-12 play and won the Sun Bowl over Georgia Tech. At 4-7, the Utes are going to finish with their first losing season since 2002. They began the year expecting to be USC's top challenger in what was supposed to be a weak South Division.
Colorado was a different story. It welcomed back just nine position players from a team that went 3-10 overall and 2-7 in conference play. The Buffaloes, while they didn't actively volunteer it, knew that they might take a step (or two) backwards in Year 2 under Jon Embree. Their biggest hope was pinned on an easy early schedule, but that ended up being fool's gold when even that proved too much for the Buffs.
"Both of us started the season with different goals and different mindsets of what we wanted our season to be," Embree said. "It hasn't gone the way either one of us has wanted."
Both coaches admit the Pac-12 has been a bit too much to handle, a big step up from their former leagues, the Mountain West Conference (Utah) and Big 12 (Colorado). A team needs depth and across-the-board speed in the Pac-12. And it needs a consistent quarterback, which neither team has had this season.
"When that position is playing well, it gives you a lot of confidence," Embree said.
Utah, however, took its biggest step back on defense. Last year, Utah ranked No. 1 in the conference in scoring defense (19.7 points per game). This year, it ranks sixth (24.2 ppg).
The secondary often has struggled and the linebackers are young and often banged up.
"Linebackers, there's been a learning curve there," coach Kyle Whittingham said.
Things likely will get even more challenging for the Utes next year. For one, they lose several key starters, including defensive tackle Star Lotulelei and running back John White. Second, the conference schedule gets much tougher with the addition of a visit from Stanford and a road game at Oregon, teams the Utes missed in their first two seasons of conference play.
Colorado was lousy in 2011 with a veteran team, so it's not surprising it was completely overmatched with a youthful one. Colorado only has eight seniors on the roster, and 13 true freshmen are in the regular rotation, with 51 starts by true freshmen leading the nation. In fact, the Buffs use 18 first-year starters.
And all that youth showed. Colorado ranked last in both scoring offense and scoring defense in the conference for a second consecutive year, only they were more last this year. In 2011, they averaged 19.8 points per game. This season, it has been 16.3. Last year, the defense yielded 36.5 points per game. This year, it has been an eye-popping 46.4.
The solution is simple: Both teams need better players.
"We need to keep recruiting, that's apparent," Whittingham said.
Whittingham also added that playmaking is an issue. When the screws tightened this year, his team didn't convert.
"We've got to start making more of those plays that are tipping points in games," he said.
As for these new Pac-12 "rivals," there's still something to play for. Turning to offseason concerns is always easier after a win, even after a disappointing season.
Said Embree, "Everyone wants to win that last game."