One of the biggest changes Utah will see with its move to the Pac-12 is an entirely new level of postseason bowls available to the program.
In the Mountain West Conference, the bowl picture was hardly rosy. The conference champion, without easy access to the BCS, was generally guaranteed a spot in the Las Vegas Bowl against the Pac-10's 4th or 5th best team most years. This was evident when, in 2006 and 2007, the BYU Cougars played the Oregon Ducks and UCLA Bruins during their championship seasons.
Of course, you can bypass Vegas via the BCS and that is something the last three Mountain West Conference champions have successfully done (Utah in 08, TCU in both 09 and 10), but it requires a lot of luck and some damn good teams to do it.
Since the Mountain West formed in 1999, Utah has played in three Las Vegas Bowls. Their two victories, over Fresno State in 1999 and USC in 2001, came before the conference's champion was tied to that bowl game. Back then, the conference sent its champion to the Liberty Bowl, a bowl game the Utes won in 2003, to face the champion of the Conference USA. Then there was last year's Vegas Debacle and even then, Utah was only selected because the Frogs gained an at-large berth to the Rose Bowl.
Outside the Las Vegas Bowl, and in seasons the Utes have failed to win the conference, they've played in the Poinsettia Bowl (a win over Navy in 2007 and another win over Cal in 2009), Emerald Bowl (win over Georgia Tech) and the Armed Forces Bowl (a win over Tulsa in 2006).
Fortunately, Utah missed out on playing in the New Mexico Bowl and only managed to play in the Armed Forces Bowl once.
That's their bowl history in the Mountain West. Not exactly prestigious once you rule out the BCS wins.
Much of this changes in 2011. The Utes now get the luxury of using the Pac-12 bowl tie-ins (and with our luck, get stuck playing in the Las Vegas Bowl again) and its automatic berth to the Rose Bowl if they win the Pac-12 title.
Even without the BCS tie-in, though, there are some intriguing potential bowl games that certainly trump anything we've seen out of the Mountain West lately.
So what are Utah's options - at least beyond the Rose Bowl or another BCS bowl game?
Here's a look at the Pac-12 bowl games:
Valero Alamo Bowl
This would be an option if the Utes win the Pac-12 South but lose in the conference championship and fail to get an at-large bid to the BCS. Here they would face the 3rd best Big 12 team.
Last Five Results:
2010: Oklahoma State 36, Arizona 10
2009: Texas Tech 41, Michigan State 31
2008: Missouri 30, Northwestern 23 (OT)
2007: Penn State 24, Texas A&M 17
2006: Texas 26, Iowa 24
Clearly 2010 was the first year the Pac-10 had ties to the bowl, but you can see it's produced some great games and great teams. I don't think any Ute fans would look down on playing the Oklahoma St. Cowboys instead of Navy in the Poinsettia Bowl...again.
Hyundai Sun Bowl
Utah last played in the Sun Bowl back in 1939. They beat New Mexico 26-0. Could a return trip be in order for the Utes in their first season in the Pac-12? It's possible, especially if they don't win the Pac-12 South.
Last Five Results:
2010: Notre Dame 33, Miami 17
2009: Oklahoma 31, Stanford 27
2008: Oregon State 3, Pittsburgh 0
2007: Oregon 56, South Florida 21
2006: Oregon State 39, Missouri 38
The ACC is now tied to the Sun Bowl and will, most seasons, send their number four team. That could include just about any program since the conference has been stricken by parity the last few seasons.
Utah's lack of appearances in this bowl game pretty much sums up everything that went wrong with the football program in the old WAC. If you won the WAC back in those days, you played in the Holiday Bowl. Utah could never do it. They came the closest in 1994, but choked away a conference championship with two awful losses to New Mexico and Air Force toward the end of that season.
Could it be a destination in 2011?
Last Five Results:
2010: Washington 19, Nebraska 7
2009: Nebraska 33, Arizona 0
2008: Oregon 42, Oklahoma State 31
2007: Texas, Arizona State 34
2006: California 45, Texas A&M 10
A lot of good teams have played in the Holiday Bowl over the years and with its ties to the Big 12, I'm pretty confident that will continue.
Those are the bowls that will be new to Utah. That's not to say there aren't some familiar bowl games the conference has ties to for the upcoming season, however.
As mentioned, and known for years, the Pac-12 will send its 4th or 5th best team to the Las Vegas Bowl. It's a very likely scenario for Utah this season if they're slightly better than mediocre. Wouldn't that be a bit ironic if, in its inaugural Pac-12 season, the Utes were stuck in Vegas for a second straight year?
Finally, the other bowl familiar to Ute fans will be the Kraft Hunger Bowl - or once known as the Emerald Bowl. You'll remember that game from 2005, when the Utes stunned Georgia Tech 38-10. Don't expect as prestigious of an opponent this go around, though, as the WAC will now send one of its top-tier teams.
This too could be an option if Utah struggles to a 6-6 or 7-5 season.
So you really have a bowl picture that is all over the map depending on where the Utes finish. If they have a decent season, they will be given a decent opponent in a bowl game. If they're just average, though, it's likely they're back in Vegas playing a Mountain West team or stuck in San Francisco taking on Hawaii or Fresno State.
That's a pretty big incentive to win, don't you think?