Utah's Pac-12 success (or failure) will have far-reaching implications
Fair or not, Utah's inaugural Pac-12 season will be used to judge all BCS busters
If Utah stumbles, critics will say the major-conference grind is too much to handle
If Utah soars, it could bolster a non-AQ team's shot at playing for the national title
Tony Bergstrom has had a change of heart, and he isn't shy about revealing it. There was a time -- let's say 14 months ago -- when he hated the BCS. "It was the worst thing," he said. But now?
"I'll sing the BCS' praises from the rooftop," Utah's senior offensive tackle said. "I love the BCS. I'm the biggest fan of the BCS you'll ever find."
The reason is obvious. The Utes' move to the Pac-12 has created, according to coach Kyle Whittingham, "a big buzz," and you have to figure there are others in the beehive state with altered attitudes -- though the state's attorney general remains unmoved. Even as Utah transitions from have-not to have, Mark Shurtleff continues to press his case against the BCS.
"I think he's a BYU fan," Bergstrom said. "Just kidding. I don't know. Don't quote me on that."
Too late, and sorry if we spark the ever-present intrastate rivalry. (Shurtleff, by the way, is a BYU graduate, but his law degree is from Utah.) But whether it's with a crusading attorney general or BYU fans or just college football fans in general, Utah's move up carries big implications that go far beyond Salt Lake City. Even as the Utes and their supporters revel in what Whittingham sees as "a long-awaited payday," he understands the larger context. His program -- and more specifically, this particular team -- is about to participate in an unscientific, but very important experiment.
Like the system or hate it, the question remains the same: Now that the Utes are on the inside, how will they handle it? As Utah and others became BCS-busters, we've all heard the argument -- often voiced by fans whose teams have been beaten by Boise State, or TCU, or BYU, or Utah -- that explains away all of the success. Sure, they say, it was a nice win. Boy, that perfect record is impressive. But try grinding every week in the SEC, or the Big 12, or the Big Ten.
Or the Pac-12.
Next season, TCU leaves the Mountain West and heads to the Big East, joining Utah in making the jump to a conference with automatic-qualifier status. We'll watch the Horned Frogs' progress there, too. But the Big East's football reputation isn't exactly stellar; there's a good argument that the Mountain West has been better in recent years. The Pac-12? Now there's a pretty good league, which is why whatever Utah does this season, there's going to be a serious argument about what it means. The results will be extrapolated far beyond one program.
"We're under the microscope," Whittingham said.
It begins Sept. 10, when in a delicious bit of scheduling, the Utes' Pac-12 debut comes against the league's biggest marquee name. "Baptism by fire," said Whittingham of the date with USC at the Los Angeles Coliseum. But it's what comes next, and keeps on coming, that we'll all be watching. Beginning in October, the Utes play home games against Washington and Arizona State. The stretch run is at Cal, home against Oregon State, at Arizona. Home for UCLA, at Washington State, then home against Colorado to close the regular season.
Even without playing Oregon and Stanford, the Pac-12's current powers, the Utes' 2011 conference schedule looks a little different from, for example, last season's: UNLV, New Mexico, Wyoming, Colorado State, Air Force, TCU, San Diego State and BYU.
"The competition they play every week has been the big difference between us and them," said Bergstrom of the automatic-qualifying leagues.
"We've got to be ready to bring the 'A' game each and every week," Whittingham added.
The Utes were the original BCS-busters, earning the first BCS at-large berth for a non-AQ school. Urban Meyer's bunch blew out Pittsburgh in the 2005 Fiesta Bowl. Four years later under Whittingham, Utah scored a more resounding win, whipping Alabama in the Sugar Bowl (a victory that was apparently the catalyst for Shurtleff's quest). The Utes have won 10 games for three straight years. They're 7-3 in their last 10 games against Pac-12 schools.
But the program's past will be measured by this season's results. And people will probably jump to bigger, farther-reaching conclusions about non-AQs everywhere. Mountain West Commissioner Craig Thompson, who describes himself as a big fan of Whittingham, said the inevitable comparison is unfair. Never mind, he said, the idea of Utah "carrying the banner for 50-plus other non-AQs. Utah may not even be able to carry the flag for other Utah teams." As Thompson points out, this isn't the Utah from 2004, or 2008 -- teams he said would have played well in any league, "Mountain West or the AFC Central." Last season Utah lost to fellow BCS-busters TCU and Boise State by a combined score of 73-10 (Utah also lost 28-3 to a rebuilding Notre Dame program).
"I'm not disparaging Utah," Thompson said, "but the last two seasons, they were not the best team in the Mountain West. Is this the very best of Utah teams? Is it an average Utah team?"
We'll find out over the next few months, but in the preseason, this squad appears clearly a notch or two below the Fiesta Bowl and Sugar Bowl teams. Utah is picked by league media to finish third in the Pac-12 South, behind USC and Arizona State (with USC ineligible to play in the conference championship game because of NCAA sanctions). There's a measure of respect with the vote, sure, even if the league's current power base is located in the North division.
Getting into the Pac-12, Whittingham said, was a process of at least 25 years of sustained growth. Now that the Utes have arrived they deserve a chance to build from their new platform. With the innate advantages of the Pac-12 -- enhanced recruiting, megabucks from Larry Scott's TV deals, and so on -- there's no reason to discount Utah's chances of eventually becoming an AQ power.
"Don't judge us on one game," Whittingham said. "Don't judge us on one season. Don't judge us on two or three seasons. You've got to take a look at us 10 years down the road and look back, and that will be able to get you the answer."
He's probably right. But snap judgments are going to be made anyway.
If Utah stumbles in 2011, critics will chuckle knowingly: Yep, everyone knew it, the meat-grinder of a major conference is a different animal than a romp in a non-AQ league. If they roll through the Pac-12 schedule, the Utes will provide legitimacy to those who believe BCS-busters could play with and beat anyone, anytime. Of course, some would probably then argue the Pac-12 was down and tell us: Hey, if Utah had to play in the SEC every week ...
But it's also possible that perceptions around college football would be altered, bolstering a non-AQ team's shot at playing for the national championship while at the same time reinforcing Shurtleff's contention that the current system should be blown up because deserving teams are denied access. Which is why Boise State and yeah, even archrival BYU, should feel invested in the experiment. Right or not, the Utes' success or failure this season will reflect on those they've left behind.
"I think it's fair," Bergstrom said. "We're the example. We're hoping to do well. A lot of people are gonna look at us and say, 'See, this worked.' Or, 'It didn't.'"
Even as Bergstrom embraces the BCS, he remains a BCS-buster, at least in spirit. Never mind the long-term prospects for the program. In the immediate future, Utah's results will either be used as validation for the BCS-busters, or vindication for the BCS-busted. Only one thing's certain: Everyone will be watching. Including Shurtleff.
Even if -- especially if? -- he really is a BYU fan.