Utah Coach Kyle Whittingham is eager to improve the Utes' Pac-12 Conference… (Chris Morrison / U.S. Presswire )
More than a month before Thanksgiving, UCLA's goose already looked cooked. Arizona's football team, with a five-game losing streak and an interim coach, roasted the Bruins by 36 points in Tucson on Oct. 20.
The embarrassing loss prompted calls for Coach Rick Neuheisel's ouster, but UCLA responded with consecutive victories over California and nationally ranked Arizona State to pull into a first-place tie in the Pacific 12 Conference's South Division.
Now the future suddenly looks bright with possibility. The only roadblocks between UCLA and a Nov. 26 showdown at USC with a berth in the inaugural Pac-12 championship game at stake are the conference's newcomers, Utah and Colorado.
The Bruins travel to Salt Lake City to face the Utes on Saturday, then play host to Colorado on Nov. 19.
Both teams have struggled in their inaugural Pac-12 seasons but Utah, liked UCLA, has reversed field by winning its last two games.
"It took far longer to get our first Pac-12 win that we had hoped it would, but we finally got it," Coach Kyle Whittingham said after Utah's 27-8 win against Oregon State on Oct. 29. The Utes improved to 5-4 overall, 2-4 in conference play by defeating Arizona, 34-21, on Saturday.
Unlike Colorado (1-9, 0-6), which has been turn-the-channel bad, Utah, formerly of the Mountain West Conference, was expected to contend in the Pac-12.
The Utes won nine games or more in each of the last four seasons; reached eight consecutive bowl games, winning seven; had unbeaten seasons twice since 2004 and posted wins in the Fiesta and Sugar bowls.
But Utah early on wasn't good enough to overcome its mistakes — four turnovers or more in three of its Pac-12 losses.
"You may be able to get away with that when you're playing a lesser opponent," Whittingham said, "but when you're playing people with the caliber that we're playing, you cannot turn the ball over excessively."
Defensive tackle Dave Kruger surprised some when he told reporters after Utah's 34-10 loss to California last month that, "I guess you could say we underestimated the Pac-12 a little bit."
Whittingham said he didn't tell his players the league would be easy.
"In fact, maybe we went too much the other way and built it up too much," he said. "I don't sense that any of our guys are taking this lightly."
Colorado Coach Jon Embree, a former UCLA assistant, said fans of his team might have underestimated "how much speed is in the conference and just the level … of quarterback play."
The Buffaloes had been struggling in the Big 12 Conference, too, finishing 2-6 in each of its last three seasons. In the Pac-12, things have only gotten worse. Colorado ranks last or next to last in seven team statistical categories and has given up an average of 47 points in its last five conference losses.
Injuries have been a big factor for the Buffaloes. Colorado has lost a total of 90 games to injury to players who figured in either the two-deep roster or prominently on special teams.
That's a 20.5% absentee rate, which projects to be the second-highest figure in the last 25 years at Colorado, associate athletic director David Plati said.
Is the Pac-12 that much more physical than the Big 12?
Eric McCarty, director of sports medicine for Colorado athletics, said it has nothing to do with a new league. It's just a run of bad luck.
"We had one guy hurt in practice — our best receiver," McCarty said. "That's just one of those freak things."
At Utah, several key players have suffered serious or season-ending injuries, including starting quarterback Jordan Wynn, but the overall numbers are down.
"I know what everybody is getting at," said Paul Silvestri, head athletic trainer for Utah's football team, "but it's not showing up for me."
Utah has had 62 time-loss injuries in which a player sat out a practice or a game. Through this point last season, that figure was 75; in 2009, it was 91.
A victory that would shake up the conference standings would be good medicine for both Pac-12 newcomers. They also have plenty to play for beyond just being a spoiler.
Colorado is looking for its first Pac-12 victory and would like to shed a road losing streak that has stretched to 22 games.
Utah needs a victory to become eligible for a bowl game.