I'm no fan of the BCS, which should be pretty obvious with my posts on this blog. I truly believe the system has failed and created a class system within the college football ranks. I do not doubt that this has hindered the growth of Utah football and I often do wonder what the Utes would accomplish if they were in a bigger conference. But obviously that is a pipe dream and something that won't happen anytime soon.
While Utah has slowly built itself as one of the better non-BCS programs in the nation, they still haven't broken above that label. In 2004 they were the Little Guy that Could, even though they went into the Fiesta Bowl with a higher ranking and better record than Pittsburgh. Utah was the better team and probably were capable of even giving USC a scare in 2004. But they were the official underdog because Pittsburgh was BCS and Utah was not. And that's the perception that has ultimately hurt Utah football, keeping them amongst the ranks of being good, but never really great. Never great, because the possibility of winning a national championship at Utah is fairly small, if not impossible. Oh Utah fans can dream about the perfect schedule, but Boise State's undefeated season, and 5th place ranking, proves that even with BCS teams sitting at a loss or more, they'll most likely finish above non-BCS teams if the conditions are right.
Another problem, which stems from this perception, is the difficulty to win the recruiting wars with BCS teams. Even if those teams are at the lower end of the BCS spectrum, because often they have the ability to talk national championships, while Utah does not. This means teams like Washington State have a leg up on the Utes, even though Utah has by far the better program -- currently and traditionally -- than the Cougars.
The fact that Washington State -- located in Pullman, Washington -- or even Oregon State are BCS and Utah is not irks me. Not because these programs are less deserving than the Utes, but because they're no different than Utah. In fact, the University of Utah is located in a bigger city and has a larger enrollment than either Oregon State or Washington State. Yet both these programs are in the BCS, but most likely not because of their ability, rather because of their location, while programs like Utah and BYU are left behind. And that's the point of this topic, how Utah's regional location killed their chances of being a BCS program.
In 1962, Arizona, Arizona State, BYU, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming formed the Western Athletic Conference. The success of Arizona State, coupled with the growth of the state of Arizona itself, positioned both Arizona programs to bolt the WAC for the more prestigious Pac-8 conference, forming the Pacific Ten. That move set the WAC back greatly as the Fiesta Bowl, under the leadership of Arizona State, would go on to become a major bowl game and the Pacific Ten completely dominated the western market.
While Arizona State had built a proud football program under Frank Kush in the 1960s and 70s, Arizona was less impressive. They were a struggling program that often found themselves at the bottom of the WAC. This makes their inclusion in the then new Pacific Ten fairly illogical, because in the 1970s, Arizona was not the type of program that one would associate with a better, stronger conference out west.
Since 1978, the Pac-10's conference alignment has stayed the same. Though discussion continues about the possibility of an expansion, the reality of this is probably just as slim as the reality of Utah winning the national championship in football.
Utah's problem has always been they're located in the interior west. This region was moderately populated throughout the growth of the larger BCS conferences. At one time Utah and Colorado were in the same conference, both members of the now defunct Skyline Conference. Prior to the Buffs leaving for the Big Eight in 1948, both Utah and Colorado were the class of the conference. From the Skyline Conference's creation in 1938, until 1948 when Colorado left, the Utes won 6 conference championships, while the Buffs won 4. That heated rivalry between both teams sadly was not enough to get the Utes an invite to the Big Eight. This most likely happened because at the time Utah was still a fairly small state and the Salt Lake market was hardly what it is today. Colorado on the other hand was a growing state, with Denver acting as a regionally dominate city.
Now that Utah rests in the middle of two major BCS conferences (Pac-10 and Big 12), their only shot at playing in a BCS conference rests within these conferences themselves. And just as it is with the Pac-10, expansion of the Big 12 does not look possible at this time.
Utah has been handicapped by their region and it has cost them a realistic chance at the national championship. In the 1940s, they were a viable candidate for the Big Eight as they were also in the 1970s for the Pac-10. Though Utah has always been a strong candidate, the fact Utah experienced little growth in either the 40s or 70s most likely doomed them to non-BCS hell for the rest of the system's life.