Utah hungry for more than being college football's flavor of the month

Can Cal pull the upset at Utah? (1:15)

Trevor Matich and Robert Smith both believe Cal is more than capable beating Utah. (1:15)

SALT LAKE CITY -- There are a lot of cool things in the Spence and Cleone Eccles Football Facility, Utah's palatial football building, among the biggest in the nation. They include trophies for winning the 2005 Fiesta and 2009 Sugar Bowls, the latter a physical manhandling of Alabama that Crimson Tide fans still delude themselves into thinking was due to their team's poor attitude rather than its being stomped by a superior team.

A lot of good programs don't boast equivalent hardware. So Utah is not a babe in the woods, a cute program scrambling to enjoy its 15 minutes of fame.

And yet, one celebratory framed poster with a prominent position on the wall evokes amusement more than anything, particularly this week. It notes "2003 wins over Cal and Oregon."

How meanings change through the years. Beating an automatic-qualifying conference team used to be a big deal for Utah. Beating a Pac-12 or SEC team was cause for a wild celebration. Beating two? That merited space in the trophy case.

Now? Utah has already dispatched a highly ranked Oregon squad, one that is far more esteemed than the 2003 version that went 8-5. It's presently ranked No. 5 in the Associated Press poll with more than a few folks taking it seriously as a College Football Playoff contender. No. 23 and unbeaten Cal comes to town Saturday, with ESPN's College GameDay in town, making Rice-Eccles Stadium the sport's epicenter this weekend.

If the Utes improve to 5-0, thereby becoming the most impressive unbeaten team in the nation based on what has transpired on the field, they will be happy. Their fans will be delirious, and rightly so. After five games, you can't do any better.

But it won't mean diddly in December and certainly won't earn space in the trophy case unless it is followed by win after win after win that culminates with a Pac-12 South Division title.

Again, times change.

Good teams notch upsets and earn top-25 rankings and go to bowl games. But there's a thick line of demarcation between those and programs -- they're more "programs" than "teams" -- that compete for Power 5 conference titles, eyeball the CFP and seriously envision themselves as the best darn college football team in our great nation, letting out a Ric Flair-like "Wooooo!" at the 127 other teams that are jealous of their championship belt when the season's final mist clears.

Utah coach Kyle Whittingham undoubtedly got a kick out of the nation's being transfixed watching his team humiliate Oregon by 42 points two weeks ago, but he also was quick to put it in the background. He instructed his sports information staff to tell reporters, "No more Oregon questions," before his Monday news conference, and he re-emphasized to his veteran team that the fastest way to get blindsided is to get caught gazing too long at your own reflection in the mirror.

"We've got to block out the noise because there is a lot of noise out there," he said. "It's almost as if we're in a biosphere and people are looking in and tapping on the glass. You've just got to block it out and go about your business and do the things that got you here."

Utah runs the ball well and stops the run and plays great special teams. Go ask a coach how important those three qualities are in football. The defense also should get a big boost this week with a return from injury of its best player, end Hunter Dimick, who had 10.5 sacks last season but has missed the past two games.

Cal has not played a team that is anything close to as physical up front on both sides of the ball as the Utes are. Utah playing at home with a decided advantage in the trenches is hard to overlook.

On the other hand, the Utes haven't faced a quarterback who even approximates the talent and experience of Jared Goff, a three-year starter who seems almost certain at this point to be the first passer selected in the NFL draft this spring as a true junior. Goff also has a deep, talented crew of receivers who might tax a Utes secondary that was a question in the preseason. Goff, coach Sonny Dykes and offensive coordinator Tony Franklin know that the pocket will be ephemeral and the going will be tough on the ground Saturday, and they will plan accordingly.

In fact, the lack of familiarity is worth noting. These teams haven't played each other since 2012, a 49-27 Utes win, when Jeff Tedford was the Bears' head coach and Utah had different coordinators on both sides of the ball.

Obviously, if Cal beats the nation's No. 5 team on the road, it would skyrocket in the rankings, Goff would pole-vault up Heisman Trophy lists, and college football would have a new flavor of the month.

But being flavor of the month goes only so far, and Utah is a couple of clicks ahead of Cal, which was 1-11 just two years ago, in terms of what might be worthy for its trophy case in 2015.