Conference transition and what it means for Utah

Russ Isabella-US PRESSWIRE

In 2011, Utah football made the huge leap from the Mountain West to the Pac-12. The program has since struggled in the transition process.

Back in 2011, prior to the start of that season, I think most of us were a bit too optimistic about Utah's ability to make the leap from the Mountain West to the Pac-12. It's not hard to see why we were cocky - the program had gone 33-6 in a three-year stretch, including an undefeated, 13-0 season in 2008.

While we all conceded the Pac-12 would be deeper, and better, than the Mountain West, the transition, at least most of us thought, couldn't result in a dramatic drop-off. It just didn't seem possible, at least not with how Utah looked those three years - even if, in 2010, they struggled in their bigger games. Ultimately, we speculated, ten wins in the Mountain West would probably translate to seven or eight in the Pac-12. Initially, at least in 2011, this played out. While the Utes struggled early, they rebounded to finish 8-5 - the fourth best overall record in the conference that year. 8-5 is about what we expected prior to the season ... or at least, what we thought was very possible. It was only three wins off the total witnessed in '09 and '10 and, all things considered, especially when you account for the uptick in competition, the transition felt seamless.

It wasn't.

As much as we wanted to believe '11 was a good season, and overall, I guess it was compared to last year, the record helped us gloss over some major cracks in the foundation. For one, the Utes started conference play with an abysmal 0-4 record - including back-to-back-to-back blowout losses (two that came at home) and then collapsed, at home, against a horrible Colorado team, costing the program a shot at the Pac-12 South.

The Sun Bowl helped ease the pain of that game, and certainly Utah's come-from-behind win proved memorable. But of Utah's four Pac-12 wins, only one (Oregon State) came against a program that returned their coach. Arizona was coached by Tim Kish, an interim, who had taken over only a couple weeks prior to the Utah game after Mike Stoops was fired, UCLA by Rick Neuheisel and Washington State by the fired Paul Wulff - who has the distinction of overseeing one of the worst tenures in Pac-12 history.

That's not to knock the 2011 team, especially when you compare it to the '12 Utes, but to point out that the Pac-12, as a conference, was really going through a transition - as four teams, 33% of the conference, changed head coaches that season. Utah obviously took advantage of those situations and it gave 'em another winning season. Those opportunities didn't exist last season, though. Instead, the programs that replaced their fired head coaches seemed to be injected with a bit more energy - as two teams Utah beat in '11 (UCLA and Arizona) turned around and beat the Utes last season. That was made possible by the additions of two coaches who appear to be better than their predecessors.

The '12 Pac-12 was a bit more stable than the '11 incarnation solely because you didn't have many coaches on the hot seat - except for Jeff Tedford and Jon Embree, who was fired after winning four games (one of which, I might add, came against Utah) in two years.

But it's clear, especially when you just factor in conference records, Utah has struggled a bit with the move to the Pac-12. You can suggest '11 is proof of their ability in this conference, and you might be right, but the difference between '11 and '12 is fairly narrow - as the Utes only finished with one less conference win last season than they did two years ago. The big difference came when Utah was able to win all three of their out of conference games and and an extra one in conference play. Though they picked up two wins last season over teams they lost to in 2011 (Cal and Colorado), they lost to three teams they defeated two years ago (Oregon State, UCLA and Arizona). Had they won just one of those three games, they're going bowling. Conversely, had they lost to any of those three two years ago, the only difference in their overall record comes from, as I said, their out of conference play ... which, when you think about it, doesn't really have any bearing on Utah's transition to the Pac-12, since, you know, they're not Pac-12 games (and Utah's OOC schedule mirrors what we saw in the MWC).

So, ultimately, Utah's conference record the past two seasons has almost been identical - with Utah going 7-11. That's not good and why, when you get down to it, the program has lost a good deal of its standing nationally, and yes, even locally.

Even so, is this a surprise? I guess it is because, as I said already, I don't think many of us expected this hard of a transition. But it is a transition and Utah has made a leap that really wasn't comparable in the current college football landscape - jumping from one of the premier non-BCS conferences to one of the premier BCS conferences. The closest comparisons to Utah's situation recently are Louisville, Cincinnati and South Florida, three teams that jumped from the Conference USA to the Big East in 2005 and TCU in the Big 12 this past season.

Yet the Big East, even back then, was not a premier football conference. In 2005, the year those three joined, only one Big East team had more than 10 wins (West Virginia, who went 11-1) and only three finished with a winning record (West Virginia, Louisville and Rutgers). 2006 was much better for the conference, and Louisville, but it's still hard to compare that leap from the C-USA to the Big East to that of the Mountain West to the Pac-12.

Then again, maybe it is applicable and in that regard, the Cardinals transitioned far more successfully than Utah. But other programs weren't as consistent, or as lucky. Cincinnati, in 2005, their first in the Big East, went 4-7 and then 8-5 in 2006. It was at that point the program really took off and became an instant, and consistent, Big East player. South Florida, who went 6-6 in 2005 and then 9-4 in 2006, has been less consistent.

The closest example to Utah is TCU, though. The Frogs jumped from the very same conference Utah was in to the Big 12. Their first-year Big 12 record was identical to that of Utah's in the PAC in 2011 - 4-5. They finished, overall, worse than Utah in '11, going 7-6 - their fewest wins since '07 and snapping a streak of four-straight ten-win seasons.

It's clear, more so than Louisville in the Big East, that TCU struggled in their transition. 7-6 for a Big 12 team is not awful, but this was a team that, two years ago, cruised through the Mountain West with an undefeated conference record. It didn't carry over into the bigger and better conference - depth was an issue, as was overall talent.

Sound familiar?

But what about teams making the jump from a BCS conference to another BCS conference? Lately, we've seen Missouri, Texas A&M, West Virginia, Colorado and Nebraska make the jump. Nebraska and Colorado did theirs the same season Utah joined the Pac-12, while Missouri and Texas A&M joined the SEC this past season.

Colorado, who came along with Utah to their new conference, was 3-10 in their first season and then 1-11 last season. This was down from their 3-9 record in 2009 and 5-7 record in 2010. So, while the Buffaloes had failed to do anything of note in their final two seasons in the Big 12, their transition to the Pac-12 was actually worse - they went 8-16 in those final two years and then 4-21 in their first two in the Pac-12.

That's a stiff decline, even for a struggling program. Was it solely the transition or coaching or both? Who knows...but it might shine some light on why transition has been so difficult for Utah.

Nebraska, Colorado's old rival, certainly had a better footing than the Buffaloes when they bolted the Big 12 for the Big 10 and it's helped them ease into that conference far stronger than either Utah or Colorado have theirs. But in 2010, their final season in the Big 12, the Cornhuskers blew a 17-point lead in the conference championship game to Oklahoma and lost 23-20 - that coming a year after losing to Texas on a last second field goal. In their first season in the Big 10, Nebraska failed to make it to the conference championship game and finished with an overall 5-3 conference record - their worst under Bo Pelini since his first season there in 2008. To their credit, they did bounce back in 2012 to play Wisconsin in the title game ... only to get blown out 70-31. Still, Nebraska transitioned well enough and hasn't really taken a step back in their new conference.

In 2012, Texas A&M and Missouri bolted for the SEC and each had dramatically different seasons. The Aggies handled the transition better than any program I've listed here - going from 7-6 in the Big 12 in 2011 to 11-2 in the SEC in 2012 - including an upset over Alabama in Tuscaloosa. That last season came under the guidance of an entirely new coaching staff.

Fans weren't so lucky in Columbia, as Missouri, who went 7-5 in their final season in the Big 12, turned around and finished 5-7 last season - their first losing season since 2004. Worse, their SEC record was an embarrassing 2-6.

Their transition was obviously rocky and has already put head coach Gary Pinkel, who is the third-winningest coach in program history, on the hot seat.

West Virginia, who, along with TCU, joined the Big 12 last season, also saw a downturn in success. In 2011, the Mountaineers won the Big East and pulverized the Clemson Tigers in that year's Orange Bowl. Prior to the '12 season, they were picked to finish second in the conference, but that type of success never materialized - West Virginia finished tied toward the bottom of the conference with a losing record. Overall, they went 7-6 - including losing to Syracuse, an old conference rival, in the Pinstripe Bowl.

Of course, the big difference with most these comparisons, at least with Missouri, West Virginia and TCU, is the fact these teams are just entering their second season with their new conferences. There is the possibility their transition only proves to be one year and both the Tigers and Frogs are winning many games in their new home.

But there is evidence to point to at least a brief transition period during the jump. Some programs fared better in that transition (the Big East teams and Texas A&M), but on the whole, I think it's safe to say conference realignment has changed the dynamics for those teams most impacted - especially Utah, West Virginia and TCU, who had to make the leap to far tougher conferences.

So, does this mean we shouldn't be concerned? Of course not. Like I said, there are examples of teams doing much better in the transition than Utah and others have only one season under their belt. TCU is already being floated around as the 2nd best team in the Big 12 and could possibly win the conference this season. That would indicate their transition period proved very brief and ultimately, they would be far ahead of Utah in any regard. Missouri and Colorado are less likely to make the leap - but Texas A&M and Nebraska have already proven they're comfortable in their new homes.

And that is what faces Utah right now - are they better than their 13-12 record the past two seasons? If not, then this is deeper than just transitioning to a new conference. But if they are, even with last year's 5-7 record, the transition could be considered brief if this team can finish with a winning record and contend, legitimately, for a Pac-12 South title.

That's really what's on the line in 2013. This team needs to establish they're just catching up, and soon will, instead of settling in as another bottom dweller at the BCS level. We don't want to admit the possibility, and I don't think it's something to be concerned over right now, but the fact remains that each BCS conference is riddled with bad programs that, for whatever reason, just can't seem to produce sustainable success.

Basically, it comes down to one question - was 2011 the real deal and 2012 a fluke or the other way around?

2013 should help us answer that. But let's remember, even with improvement and progress, the difference between what we got in 2011, and what we got last year, wasn't huge. It was a very small difference and proves why, at this level, walking the tight rope successfully is a must if you want to be a successful program.

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