It's been suggested that if Utah were invited to the Pac-10 they'd regress as a program and stagnate somewhere toward the middle. This is actually a logical and rational argument because historically, the programs outside of California have struggled consistently to remain at the top. Even Washington has found itself at the bottom more times than not since their last Rose Bowl in 2001.
The only consistent non-California program the Pac-10 has seen over the last decade has been Oregon. Even then, their success doesn't come close to matching that of USC - which, up until this season, had a stranglehold on the conference.
So why is Utah different?
Well I actually believe Utah is closer to the likes of Oregon and Washington (and I do believe that program will get it turned around) than it is Oregon State and Washington State. But there are some similarities between the Ute program and both Arizona schools.
Let's start there.
Arizona State probably mirrors Utah football more than any current Pac-10 team. Like Utah, the Sun Devils were a founding member of the Western Athletic Conference. Similarly, prior to expansion rumors heating up between the lower-level WAC (now Mountain West) and the Pacific-8 (now Pacific-10), they established themselves as one of the better football programs in the west.
Arizona State left for the Pac-10 in 1978. In their final season in the WAC, which occurred in 1977, the Sun Devils tied for the conference crown and finished 9-3 overall.
Their first season in the newly named Pac-10 wasn't much worse. They didn't win the conference that year, however, managed to again finish with a 9-3 record. The transition from the perceived weaker WAC to the stronger Pac-10 was seamless. In fact, it probably went better than expected.
Yet a year removed from that 9-3 season saw Arizona State plunge to a 3-2 start in their second season as a Pac-10 member. Legendary Sun Devil head coach Frank Kush was forced out and the team finished a mediocre 5-7 on the season (all but one win was forfeited due to the use of ineligible players). Not exactly that seamless transition we saw a year earlier.
Arizona State would rebound a bit under Darryl Rogers - but the success they saw from the WAC would not carry over. In the old WAC, the Sun Devils managed to win six conference championships from 1970 to 1977. Since joining the Pac-10, they've only managed three conference championships. Not very comparable.
Beyond just conference championships, Arizona State won ten games or more in 1970, 1971, 1972, 1973 and 1975 while playing in the WAC. Since the move, they've done it only four times - 1982, 1986, 1996 and 2007. An average of about one ten-win season every decade.
It's not hard to see that their most successful era came when the team played in the WAC. They dominated the WAC in the early-70s and general consensus leads many to believe had they not jumped for the Pac-10, those wins continue and the program doesn't stagnate like it eventually did.
True, Arizona State hasn't been an awful Pac-10 program. Their success is better than that of Cal, Arizona, Stanford, Washington State and Oregon State over a similar span. It's also not far off from what the Bruins have done since the Sun Devils joined the conference. But it's probably not what the school expected when they made the jump.
To be sure, success did follow and there were stretches where the Sun Devils played at the level they were in the old WAC. However, a big reason why they made the jump had to do with the fact many officials in that program thought it would nationally elevate their football team. They had been at the brink in the WAC, finishing in the top-ten in 1970, '71, '73 and even second in '75.
The Pac-10 was supposed to take them from a regional power and turn them into a national one. It didn't happen.
Now compare that to Utah right now and you'll see a very similar situation.
The Utes have had a string of really good seasons over the last decade in the Mountain West. They've established themselves as a regional power and definitely one of the best (if not the best) programs in the conference. Now while Utah's Mountain West success doesn't quite compare to that of Arizona State's in the WAC, they did manage two BCS bowl wins, a top-two finish and four ten-win seasons.
If Utah were to move to the Pac-10, it's to elevate this program. That's the only reason. If Utah felt they could be a national player in the Mountain West, they would not entertain the thought of bolting to a better conference. But you and I know that if the Pac-10 were to invite Utah, the athletic department would not hesitate at accepting.
But are they destined for a similar path that Arizona State has seen? A program that can be great at times, but mostly just sits around the middle of the pack?
That's the key question and many Pac-10 fans will assert this to be the case. I disagree, however.
For starters, I believe Arizona State was on the downturn as a program when the Pac-10 expanded in 1978. Granted, the decline wasn't sharp and to a casual fan probably not noticed. However, if you look deeper, it becomes obvious.
As I've said, the Sun Devil's best seasons during the Kush era came in the old WAC. But it isn't true that they were running away with the conference in 1977 like they had done the earlier part of that decade.
In 1975, the peak of Arizona State football, the Sun Devils went 12-0 and finished, as I said, second in the country. They followed that season up going 4-7 a year later. It was the first losing season of Frank Kush's career at ASU.
That was also the year BYU finally won a conference championship. It was the start of LaVell Edwards' amazing run there and it also signaled that maybe things weren't as golden in Tempe as first thought.
Their final season in the WAC followed that 4-7 season and I already discussed what happened in that season (9-3, co-champs with BYU).
Beyond their downturn on the football field, the Sun Devils also had to deal with the abrupt firing of Frank Kush after the 3-2 start during their second season in the Pac-10.
Kush was a legend at Arizona State. He turned them into a western power and still to this day owns the most wins in school history. Yet it didn't stop him from coming under fire.
Toward the start of their second season in the Pac-10, Kevin Rutledge, a former punter for the team, filed a $1.1 million lawsuit against the school. In that lawsuit, he accused Kush of mental and physical abuse, which ultimately forced him to transfer from the program. It was a situation very similar to what we saw this past year at Texas Tech with Mike Leach.
Forcing Kush out did not sit well with fans. Especially when, after two years, he was not found liable in the case. This situation, coupled with the apparent decline prior to the move of the Pac-10, damaged the program. They would regain some footing in subsequent seasons, but ASU has yet to see a stretch similar to what they witnessed in the 1970s.
The biggest difference, though, just might be the BCS. In the 1970s, it didn't exist. The WAC might not have been at the level of the Pac-Eight, but without the hindrance of a system that exploits the rifts between conferences, the Sun Devils were not at the disadvantage as Utah currently is in the Mountain West. The gap between the BCS and the non-BCS is growing, regardless of what people may believe. As the rich get richer, teams like Utah will only become more marginalized until either the system collapses or they make their move.
Arizona doesn't offer up near the comparison because they weren't known for their football program prior to the move to the Pac-10. In fact, the Wildcats haven't really been known for their football outside of a few seasons during the Dick Tomey era. Even in the WAC they struggled at times.
I shouldn't be too harsh on the program, though. They were better in the 70s than Utah. When the move happened, Arizona had strung together a few decent seasons. They went 8-3 in 1973, and 9-2 in both '74 and '75. Yet that's about the extent of it. Prior to that mini-run of three good seasons, the Wildcats had a losing season four consecutive years and then followed that last 9-3 season with three more losing seasons. It shouldn't take much to see why they struggled in the Pac-10, though Larry Smith did see marginal success in Tucson before bolting for SC in the mid-80s.
Even under Tomey, the Wildcats weren't consistent. They failed to win an outright title and never played in the Rose Bowl. They also only won ten games or more twice (1994 - when Utah beat them in the Freedom Bowl and 1998 when they went 12-1). That '98 season was the best in school history, but no success carried over into the 1999 and 2000 seasons and because of that, Tomey was let go.
Arizona's place in the Pac-10 isn't much different from their place in the old WAC. Utah has proven to be a far more consistent and better program than the Wildcats since even the 90s.
For years the Beavers were a very bad program. In fact, the worst in the Pac-10. Oregon State went nineteen years without a winning season. It wasn't until 1999 that they finally tasted success and they haven't looked back since, becoming one of the more durable programs in the conference. Yet they've still only managed one great season (2000, when they shared the championship and played in the Fiesta Bowl) and though have contended in the past for another title, have failed to win it. Since that 2000 run, they've been a good - but far from great - program.
Similarly to Arizona, there was not a track record of success there when the P-8 expanded to the P-10. Which obviously points to why the Beavers have not consistently dominated that conference. Plus, unlike Utah, they play in a very tiny community and have struggled at times to remove themselves from the shadows of Oregon. The Utes are located in a fast growing metropolitan area that tops a million and have equaled or bested their rival far more than Oregon State has managed to do lately.
The situations are not comparable, in my opinion, which is why I believe the Utes could potentially outperform Oregon State.
The Cougars proved for a stretch to be slightly better than Oregon State prior to their run of success under Mike Price. Granted, they did have winning seasons, but anything hardly eye-popping. It wasn't until Price took over that the program became a threat in the Pac-10 and even then, success was hard to sustain.
They only managed two Pac-10 titles and neither were outright. Of course, they did play in two Rose Bowls (more than Arizona), yet failed to win in either trip. Then there was the lack of any consistency between successful seasons. Only once did Price have back-to-back winning seasons and they were his last there before accepting (and then losing) the Alabama job.
Beyond the inconsistency on the field, Washington State also plays in Pullman - which has to be hell to recruit. That might explain why their current head coach, Paul Wulff, is 3-22 in two seasons. Like Oregon State, they also struggle with a much larger and more known rival in their own borders. Though Washington has slumped lately, it's a program I think most universally believe to be stronger than Washington State. Recent failure aside, the Cougars will always constantly be fighting that perception and the larger shadow cast by the Huskies. Even more so than the Beavers when it comes to Oregon.
Ultimately, the factors facing all these teams outside of Arizona State are not comparable to Utah. The Beavers, Wildcats and Cougars have not seen a sustained level of success like Utah. And Arizona State saw internal strife at the worst possible time (during the transition of conferences).
Though this is all opinion, I do believe the foundation of Utah football is stronger today than any of those program I listed when the Pac-10 expanded from eight teams to ten.
Does that mean I expect them to dominate right away? No. But I do believe they could easily position themselves in the top-half of the league. The fact the Utes have seen recent success against the Pac-10 does bolster this point. Even in their loss at Oregon last year, Utah was competitive in a rebuilding season and they took Cal behind the woodshed in the Poinsettia Bowl back in December.
So no, I do not believe the Utes would be destined for Washington State-like status among the Pac-10 if they were to make the switch. If anything, I believe the consistency they have shown in a very diverse and talented Mountain West would be similar to what they see in the Pac-10 (not dominant, yet consistent enough to contend for ten-wins and a conference championship almost every year).
Of course, I'm guessing many Pac-10 fans will disagree.