Just about anything that could go wrong went wrong for Utah during its visit to Utah State last year. Nonetheless, there were plenty of moments when the Utes could have pulled themselves up by their Pac-12 bootstraps and cast aside a team that they had beaten 12 consecutive times.
Could've, should've, would've.
Same goes for Colorado against Colorado State in their 2012 opener. The Buffaloes had a fourth-quarter lead and plenty of opportunities to take the short drive home from Denver with a win.
Utah and Colorado are about to begin their third year of Pac-12 play. Neither is happy with what has transpired over the past two seasons. Colorado has been awful, and Utah has gone from top-25 program to a team with a losing conference record.
It's not unreasonable to wonder if early-season losses to a "little brother" state rival last September -- as in non-AQ teams with a history of losing in the series -- might have taken the starch out of their seasons before they really had started, that a residual hangover lingered throughout the year.
"I think without a doubt," Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said. "Me personally, I didn't take it well. I wasn't able to put it behind me and move forward quick enough. In this profession, that's what you've got to be able to do. You've got to be resilient and, win or lose, move forward and focus on the next opponent. I think there was a little bit of a hangover, and that's squarely on my shoulders and my fault. I'm responsible for the mindset of the program and the team."
Let's set the table with "what if" for both. What if Utes QB Jordan Wynn doesn't in the second quarter again hurt his shoulder against the Aggies, an injury that would end his once-promising career? What if Coleman Peterson wins the game in regulation with a 52-yard field goal instead of missing? What if a TD catch in overtime from tight end Jake Murphy doesn't get nullified by an offensive pass interference penalty?
(We'll pause to allow Utes fans to express themselves about that call).
Essentially, what if Utah wins? At the very least, the Utes don't suffer their first losing season in a decade. In a bigger picture of "what if," the entire season might have played out differently.
As for Colorado, it's pretty simple. If the Buffaloes had made plays in the fourth quarter of a game they seemed poised to take control of, it's possible that Jon Embree would still be the head coach, not Mike MacIntyre.
These little brother rivals also had different trajectories. Utah State rolled to an 11-2 finish, and coach Gary Andersen parlayed that into a contract coaching Wisconsin. Offensive coordinator Matt Wells takes over a team with a lot of starters back, including dynamic QB Chucky Keeton, that figures to make some noise in the Mountain West Conference this fall.
Conversely, the Rams, also in the Mountain West, lost six in a row after beating Colorado, including an embarrassing 22-7 defeat to North Dakota State, an FCS team. Still, the Rams have a lot of starters back.
Both "little brothers" probably feel good about their chances, the Aggies on Thursday and Colorado State on Sunday.
For MacIntyre, he knows that a season-opening win could provide his tenure some immediate good will from a beleaguered fan base. Of course, he's been tossed into a measuring stick game with more ramification than most first-year coaches are facing this week.
"There's a lot of emotion involved in it," MacIntyre said. "I think it's different than a lot of opening games. You're playing your in-state rival at a neutral site. That puts a little bit of added emotional context to it."
The rebuilding Buffaloes are a 3-point underdog, but their matchup with the Rams represents their best chance for a win over an FBS team in 2013. A loss would make it a hard-sell for MacIntyre to convince his guys they have any chance in Pac-12 play. A win? It might inspire enough momentum for the season to exceed expectations, thereby igniting longterm optimism.
Utah has bigger goals, but a loss to Utah State would make earning bowl eligibility suddenly seem like an uphill battle. Fans impatient with the Utes progress in the Pac-12 might then point the finger of blame at Whittingham.
In other words, these are big games for both programs.
While coaches like to pooh-pooh the idea of "must win," it's not unreasonable to believe the trajectory of both teams' seasons could be set this week against an ambitious “little brother.”