Matt Kartozian-US PRESSWIRE
Utah football is quickly realizing the pressures of the BCS ... win or else.
The BCS (and whatever variant the playoff produces) has a short memory. There is nothing more clear about that than where the Utes were this time last year compared to now. Last year, after their Sun Bowl victory over Georgia Tech, one of only two bowl wins for the conference, I think most felt fairly optimistic about the direction the program was taking. Not so much a year later ... even if we cling to some optimism based on past results and, truthfully, plain ol' hope.
Yeah, at this level, you're one season away from being irrelevant. I always thought it was the other way around - I always thought it was the non-BCS teams that vanished during their rebuilding seasons ... not the BCS folk. In my mind, all those teams could afford a little slippage here and there because they were BCS and almost always given the benefit of the doubt. That might be true for a handful of programs, but in the end, it's extensively more the pressure cooker at this level than anything we witnessed in the Mountain West.
This was definitely not something I expected. But then it made sense. It made sense because in the Mountain West, no matter how many dings we took, we were still one of the most important programs to the conference. That didn't change because we had one off season and had to settle for a mediocre conference record. In 2005 and 2006, when TCU and BYU were the top dogs in the Mountain West, the Utes still carried a huge portion of the conference's weight - even if they weren't entirely all that good. People knew who we were and it had always been that way because, for a decade, since the conference's founding, it was always essentially Utah and BYU and then TCU. It rarely ever varied, especially once the Colorado St. Rams tapered off and slid into obscurity.
But because the Utes had staying power at that level, every losing season, or disappointing season, their position in the conference was never really threatened. In 2002, they were still as much part of the top rung as they were in 2004. Sure, other teams might succeed more, produce better conference results, but at the end of the day, almost always, along with the Cougars, it was our conference. It had always been our conference ... since the days Utah and BYU decided to form that conference.
It's different in the Pac-12. It's always been different. This is not our conference. We're a member, to be sure, but we're not the quantity anymore. This conference takes a bigger hit when USC finishes with seven wins instead of Utah finishing with seven losses. On the national scale, no one cares and it's not much better regionally anymore. Because we're not at the top, a sudden slide is your quick path to irrelevancy - just as it has been for a handful of other Pac-12 programs from Arizona to Washington State. When they struggle, no one really takes notice because it's not USC or UCLA, Washington or now Oregon.
That's not a knock on Utah football. It's just reality. In the Mountain West, everything revolved around the Utah schools - win or lose. Certainly, when they won, it carried far more for the conference than when they lost, but for their personal standing? Utah wasn't ever going to become the forgotten Mountain West team and neither was BYU.
But now both programs could find themselves forgotten - the Utes in the PAC and the Cougars with their independent adventures.
It's not very hard getting lost in the Pac-12 shuffle. I think we saw that this past season and it really showcased Utah's standing in this conference (or lack thereof).
However, and this is a pretty positive however in an article that sounds, I'll admit, pretty depressing - this isn't just a one-way street. Prospects can darken just as easily as they improve. Oregon State is evidence of this, as they went from a program that got lost in the shuffle and largely forgotten the past two or so seasons, to one that finished 19th nationally. Who could have imagined that possible this time last year? So, as much as we regressed this past season and lost our footing, it's not a guarantee it will continue for multiple seasons.
That's our hope ... that hope I mentioned earlier. We hope that Utah can get it turned around as fast as it's felt we lost ground. It can happen and for our sake, it needs to happen because it won't be easy for Utah to establish a firm winning foundation and attitude with a constant struggle and no past history of success. Right now, unfortunately, that might be what is dogging the Utes the most - the fact they have almost zilch in the way of conference history here.
There is no point of reference that proves we can win continuously in this conference. That's the difference between Utah and Oregon State, as the Beavers have had a past history of success in the Pac-12 - even if it's limited to the 00s. But that same past success fuels the fans in Pullman and even makes 'em optimistic in Berkeley.
But what about Salt Lake?
Right now, in that regard, we're very limited. That has to change. I'm hopeful it will change and readily believe it can this next season.
If it doesn't? Well, let's not go there.