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Commentary: BYU, Utah football both plagued by missed opportunities

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After BYU and Utah football both suffered tough losses on Saturday, one can't help but think of the immortal words of John Greenleaf Whittier:

"For all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these, 'It might have been.’ ”

Cougar and Ute fans alike will look back on 2013 and wonder, "What if …." While BYU will be going to a bowl game and Utah will have to stay home for the second year in a row, the Cougars and Utes both find themselves in largely the same boat.

And it's not a comfortable one.

Bronco Mendenhall hasn't missed a bowl game yet, and the Cougars have already accepted an invitation to the Fight Hunger Bowl. However, there's a feeling of impatience building in Provo. Part of the reason why is Mendenhall's own comments.

Namely, it's Mendenhall’s repeated statements that the national championship is BYU's goal now that the Cougars are independent. Anyone who watched BYU get manhandled by Notre Dame knows that the Cougars are no closer to winning a national title than they were when they left the Mountain West Conference.

Yes, BYU is making some progress. The Cougars did beat Houston on the road as well as Texas, Georgia Tech and Boise State at home. Really, 2013 could have been a solid success even with losses to Wisconsin and Notre Dame.

But losses to Virginia and Utah put a damper on things.

The Cavaliers are 2-9, and it looks like BYU will be the only FBS team they will beat this season. There were plenty of excuses. Robert Anae was installing a new offense, Taysom Hill had to shake off the rust after being out much of last season with a knee injury and there was the rain delay that seemed to take momentum away from the Cougars and gave it right to Virginia.

Of course, all those excuses don't matter now. All that people will remember is that they lost to a terrible team on the road.

But if BYU could have just one game back, it would surely be the Utah game. Losing to the Utes for the fourth season in a row hurt, particularly since the Cougars won't get a shot at redemption until 2016.

All four of BYU's losses were by 10 points or less. A play here, a touchdown there or a big defense stop at a key time were the difference between an 11-0 or 10-1 record and BYU's actual 7-4 record.

The Cougars' loss to Notre Dame was no different. BYU failed to capitalize on key opportunities, including Craig Bills' interception in the end zone. BYU drove just 13 yards before punting the ball right back to the Irish.

Plus, BYU's "blue zone" efficiency is just awful. The Cougars have been inside the 20 51 times this season, and they've only scored touchdowns 24 times. Ten of those trips to the end zone have ended without even a field goal.

That translates to 219 points in the blue zone out of a possible 357. That's 138 points left on the field. This hurts even more given that BYU's four losses came by a combined 29 points.

BYU will finish 2013 with a winning record and up to nine wins. However, BYU needs more than that if football independence is going to work long-term.

Kyle Whittingham and the Utes are in a bad position as well. Utah's 49-37 loss to Washington State will keep Utah from a bowl game and ensure a losing season.

This is not what Ute fans had envisioned when their team received a coveted invite to the new Pac-12. They dreamed of playing in the Rose Bowl and laughing at BYU languishing in mediocrity. Well, they can still laugh at BYU thanks to Utah's four-game winning streak over the Cougars, but they'll have to do so at home instead of at a bowl game, Rose or otherwise.

The Utes are 17-19 since joining the Pac-12 in 2011 and 8-18 in conference. It would be one thing if Utah was making progress in its new conference, but the Utes will finish no better than 2-7 this year. Utah won four conference games in 2011 and three last season.

Fact is, Whittingham is in trouble.

Yes, Whittingham has a 6-3 record over BYU and a fantastic Sugar Bowl victory over Alabama on his résumé. However, this is Whittingham's third season in the Pac-12. That's three years to adapt to the increased competition, not to mention the advantages of being in the Pac-12 with recruiting.

To put this in perspective, former Auburn head coach Gene Chizik won a national championship in 2010 only to be fired two seasons later after finishing 3-9. Chizik got just one losing season, and Whittingham already has two.

Anyone really think he'll still be around if the Utes make it three?

The Utes had several opportunities to win conference games this season. Four of Utah's losses came by a touchdown or less. Imagine how things might have been different if Utah was 8-3 instead of 4-7. Utah would be ranked and in contention for a division title. That 27-21 win over Stanford would mean a whole bunch more.

Now it's just a footnote in a disappointing season.

Utah had a decent shot of at least making it to a bowl game if it had just taken care of business against Washington State. Instead, it took a 21-0 deficit in the first quarter because of two Adam Schulz interceptions that were returned for touchdowns.

Quarterback play has been at the root of Utah's problems since the Utes joined the Pac-12. One quarterback after another has gone down to injury. The list includes Jordan Wynn and now Travis Wilson. Who knows how things might be different if Utah could just have a healthy quarterback.

So, both BYU and Utah face the same problems. Both teams had the opportunity to do something really great this season, but ultimately fell short.

Well, there's always next season.

Lafe Peavler is a sports writer intern at the Deseret News. Email him at lpeavler@deseretdigital.com