Note: The following is not a case FOR Pac-10 expansion, rather a case FOR Utah if the Pac-10 were to ever expand. The pluses and minuses can be debated on whether the Pac-10 should expand, but the focus of this article is solely Utah.
The expansion talk recently can't be avoided any longer and while the prospects of Utah joining the Pac-10 -- let alone the conference expanding -- is slim, I thought I would at least entertain the thought. Because I believe, outside of my clear bias, Utah has a solid case for one of the probable two slots that would become available if the Pac-10 were to expand.
Looking at the prospects, expansion begins with two obvious needs, an academic school with a strong athletic program. Of all the candidates outside the BCS, Utah has the strongest case for both, which leads me to believe they would ultimately be at the top of the list if and when expansion happens. So when looking at the case for Utah, we have to break it down into two distinct areas. Academics and athletics.
Utah is no UCLA, Cal or Stanford, but it has still built a strong tradition in academics, especially within the research field. The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching listed the University of Utah as a Research I university, a classification given to top schools in the United States which received the highest amount of research funding from the Federal Government.
This is attractive to the Pac-10, because the conference has always prided itself on strong academic connections. In fact, I wager academics is by far the biggest issue the Pac-10 will look at when discussing expansion.
In this regard, Utah ranks lower than the tradition Pac-10 powers, however, good enough to not compromise the conference's academic standing, especially when compared to other potential expansion programs like Boise State, San Diego State, UNLV and maybe Fresno State. Their ranking also is in-sync with the University of Colorado Boulder, which is consistently thrown around as a possible future Pac-10 team.
The University of Utah is a growing academic school and has built a reputation as being one of best research universities in the western United States. Because of this, I believe the Pac-10 will find it easier accepting the UofU than they would have maybe 10 or 15 years ago. And their advancements in the academic realm certainly does not hinder their chances.
Athletics is where Utah can pad its resume and make a legitimate case for Pac-10 inclusion. The Utah Utes have strongly built a program that bests many non-BCS ones in terms of revenue, attendance and most importantly, success, especially between the two largest sports: football and basketball.
Recently, Rivals.com looked at the strongest athletic programs in the three major sports, basketball, football and baseball. And though Utah didn't register in their overall rankings because of the poorness of their baseball program, they were the only non-BCS team that made both the football and basketball lists.
Since 1974, Utah basketball ranks tied for 22nd in Rivals' rankings. The only Pac-10 teams listed above Utah are UCLA (5th) and Arizona (10th). This is important to note, because Utah hasn't been very good in basketball as of late, yet they still manage to finish in Rivals' top-25. The only other Mountain West team to find its way into this ranking is UNLV, which came in at a solid 15th.
What Utah basketball brings to the table is a program that has generally won and won big. Even in a down year, it's rare they struggle to the point of a losing season, which is why Ray Giacoletti -- a coach only two years removed from a Sweet 16 appearance) was fired. The commitment to winning at basketball can only be matched by a few other schools. And even then, not many have accomplished what Utah has in basketball. Those accomplishments include:
10th winningest program in NCAA History (as of 2007).
26 NCAA Tournaments, which ranks 13th most in NCAA history.
Four Final Fours with the most recent being in 1998.
Two championship games, again with the most recent being in 1998.
Finished in the top-25 19 times in school history.
28 conference championships, 5th all-time in NCAA history.
One national championship.
Since 1975, Utah has made the Sweet 16 nine times.
Utah has been one of the strongest basketball programs in the western United States.
The above is just a brief rundown of Utah's accomplishments in basketball. Utah would automatically become a top-tier Pac-10 team in terms of tradition here, which again can't be offered by many other possible expansion candidates.
Beyond basketball, though, Utah has slowly built one of the strongest football programs outside of the BCS. In fact, the success of Utah football can rival that of many Pac-10 teams over the years, especially when you take consider the Utes' 12-0 BCS Busting season in 2004.
The success of Utah football can't be ignored because it will probably play a bigger role than the past success of Utah basketball. As football will always be the major player on the college athletic scene, at least nationally. The perception of a strong program, outside of a few exceptions, begins and ends with the type of football team they field. Utah can boast it has a strong football program as well as a strong basketball program, something not many expansion candidates -- outside BYU -- can claim.
Going back to Rivals' rankings, but this time looking at football, Utah ranks 21st in the BCS era. The only Pac-10 teams listed above Utah are USC (1st) and Oregon (16th). Oregon State is just behind the Utes at 24th. No other Mountain West team made the list and the only other non-BCS team ranked was Boise State at 18th.
Utah's success in football might be attributed to Urban Meyer, however, it should be noted the program was very competitive prior to Meyer's arrival in Salt Lake City. Ron McBride had built a successful program out of nothing and since he took over the Utes prior to the 1990 season, the Utes rank 25th in winning percentage at .629. Since 1997, Utah is 23rd at .653 and since 2000, the Utes are 22nd at .656. This winning percentage is only bested by two Pac-10 football programs, USC and Oregon.
The Utes also have a strong bowl record, going 10-3, including seven in a row, the second current longest bowl win streak in the nation. Utah's bowl record ranks best for a program that has played in 10 or more bowl games and of course, they own a victory in the 2005 Fiesta Bowl. One also can't overlook Utah's 44-6 thrashing of UCLA last season. Though that doesn't prove much, it does show the Utes are at least capable of holding their own against the perceived top-half of the Pac-10. Utah will also get another shot this season to prove its worth with a home game against the Oregon State Beavers -- a team that has quickly solidified its position as one of the stronger football programs in the Pac-10.
What this clearly shows is the success rate of Utah basketball and football can't be rivaled by many non-BCS teams. The Utes are the only non-BCS program to have both football and basketball ranked in Rivals' top-25 lists and they have accomplished far more in the past 10 years in both sports than any non-BCS team, especially those being considered for the Pac-10.
Beyond academics and success in athletics, there are some other interesting points the Pac-10 will probably be looking for if they were to expand.
Salt Lake City and Utah is a market untapped right now by the Pac-10. Yet it's the largest television not in a Pac-10 state from California to Colorado. The Nielsen Media Research ranks Salt Lake City 35th as a Designated Market Area. Ahead of such possible expansion cities like Las Vegas (43rd) and Boise (113th). This makes it probably the most desirable non-California location for expansion. Colorado State could tap into the Denver market, however, even the most ardent CSU supporters would concede the University of Colorado Buffalo dominates the market there. If Utah and BYU are both chosen, that would not be a problem for either program.
Salt Lake City has the Utah Jazz as its only NBA team, yet it has not really hurt attendance, especially later in the football season. In fact, attendance has held steady over the past two years, even though the Jazz have been pretty strong and one could assume this would hurt Utah football, especially later in the season when Jazz basketball overlaps that of Utah football. There is, however, no strong evidence to suggest this is the case. For Utah basketball, which takes place at the height of Jazz basketball, it is harder to identify any competition between the two, since Utah basketball has struggled the past 3 years. It should be noted, though, the basketball team's declining attendance still puts it in the top-half of the Mountain West Conference and would put it in the top-half of the Pac-10.
This is an unknown, but if the Pac-10 were to expand, the future growth of not only the University but the community surrounding it would most likely come into play. Here Utah succeeds, but so do other places like Idaho and Nevada, since the interior west is one of the fastest growing regions in America. But not only is the University of Utah growing, the Salt Lake community is as well and if the Pac-10 were to expand, Salt Lake City would be the 5th largest market in the conference, only behind that of Los Angeles (UCLA and USC), San Francisco (Stanford and Cal), Phoenix (Arizona State) and Seattle (Washington). The growth patterns do not suggest it would overtake any of these markets in the future, but it would instantly make an impact.
The possibility of future expansion remains unknown. Yet one can't help but think if it were to happen, Utah and BYU would be at the top of the list. I have not made the case for BYU, but most of what is said here could apply to them as well. I will, however, stand by my belief the Utes are the most logical expansion candidate for the Pac-10 and most of it has to do with what I outlined above.
With all of this said, it's unlikely the Pac-10 will expand soon, but it never hurts to explore this possibility.