I'm sure you've heard by now the Big Ten is seriously looking at expansion down the road. It's not something that'll happen the second this season wraps up - hell, it probably won't happen by 2011, either. However, it's something we'll most likely see in the next decade (so, that's a ten-year window).
Now how does this impact Utah? Well directly, it doesn't. The Big Ten ain't expanding this far west. There is a slightly better chance Tiger Woods is declared a saint by the Catholic Church than the Utes ever playing a game in a conference a thousand miles from their campus.
But it does indirectly impact them. In fact, they face a greater impact than any non-BCS team because if either the Big 12 or Pac Ten were to ever expand, the Utes would be atop both lists. Now I'm not saying they would get an invite to either conference, but they would receive a longer look than say Colorado State or even Boise State.
So, let's assume at the end of the 2011 season, the Big Ten expands. Right now, it's unclear who they want. Obviously Notre Dame continues to see the brunt of their push, however, it's not just the Irish who are expansion candidates. Syracuse, West Virginia, Missouri, Iowa State, Pittsburgh, Rutgers and even Nebraska - if you believe the link I posted above - appear to be logical choices.
Out of that, Notre Dame still seems the least likely because the Irish are very content with their situation. And they should be because they've got it made. They have their own TV deal. Their own path to the BCS. A national recruiting base and the most prestigious program name in all of sports (that includes the Dallas Cowboys, New York Yankees and Boston Celtics.
Let's say the Irish turn down any offer the Big Ten throws at them. This leaves Big 12 teams and Big East teams as potential newcomers to the conference.
This is where things begin to indirectly impact Utah.
Missouri and Iowa State are reasonable choices because they're Midwest schools. Iowa State is a natural rival with Iowa and Missouri is a natural rival with Illinois (they play yearly). Now it's a no-brainer that the Tigers offer a better all around program than the Cyclones. They're also the dominant program in the state - unlike ISU.
If it came down to these two Big 12 teams, the Big Ten is probably going with Missouri. If they accept, that opens the door to Big 12 expansion.
Now it gets a bit more interesting.
Firstly, there is Arkansas of the SEC. The Razorbacks' greatest history is tied back to the old Southwest Conference. If you're not familiar, a good bulk of the SWC makes up the current Big 12 South. That includes Texas, who at one point had one of the nation's largest rivalries with Arkansas. That's fizzled since the Razorbacks left the SWC in 1991 for the SEC.
But would they accept? Is Arkansas content in the SEC? I honestly don't know because I'm not an Arkansas fan. They could be. I mean, perception wise, the SEC is the nation's best conference. If you win in the SEC, you're almost guaranteed the most exposure. The Big 12, on the other hand, took a hit this season with the pathetically bad North and the collapse of Oklahoma.
Of course, football ebbs and flows. Five years ago, the SEC was so weak that its champion - an undefeated Auburn team - couldn't sniff the national championship game. Does anyone believe today an undefeated SEC team would be denied a shot at the championship? Probably not. However, it's possible had a Big Ten or Pac Ten team gone undefeated this year - an undefeated Big 12 team is left on the outside looking in.
Ultimately, from an outsiders perspective, the Big 12 is a better fit than the SEC for a program like Arkansas. I make this claim mostly because of their history with the old SWC and the fact they just haven't really been able to take it to the next level in the SEC. Granted, they've been close and maybe Bobby Petrino gets things turned around there and makes them not only an SEC power, but a nation power. Right now, though, it hasn't happened. Until it does, Arkansas will always seem more like the step-sister to that league than anything else.
That leaves the option for them to bolt to the Big 12. Let's say they do. How does this impact Utah? I mean, the conference still is stuck at twelve teams. No name change. No need for expansion, right?
The thing here is that if Arkansas goes to the Big 12, they're not going to be delegated to the North. It just isn't going to happen because they don't fit the geography of a North team. They are a South team and will play in the South. The problem here is that there is just one too many teams in the South now. It makes for uneven divisions and that can't happen.
This leaves the option open for expansion.
The Big 12 now needs a North team to replace Missouri, or Iowa State. Who gets the nod?
- BYU: They were originally at the top of the list when the Big Eight turned to twelve teams back in the 90s. This, however, ended when Baylor took the last vacancy. The Cougars are still a very viable option and certainly would get a strong look by the conference.
- TCU: They seem like the most natural and logical choice because they're in Texas. Except we're looking for a Big 12 North team and would TCU fit in the North even though they play in a state dominated by the South? Possibly. I'm sure they'd accept it. The problem here is that the Texas schools might not like the idea of opening the state even further to a local school. And if TCU gets the BCS nod, they automatically receive the cred it takes to grab big-time talent. Would Oklahoma, Nebraska and the Texas schools sign off on that? I'm not so sure. TCU also suffers from the fact it doesn't have a significant base of support within the Metroplex. They struggled this year to sellout their stadium, even though they had the greatest season in school history.
- Utah: In the 90s, they weren't on the radar because the program hadn't evolved to the point it is today. They fit geographically and can spark up their rival with Colorado again. Up until the 60s, both these programs dominated the Rocky Mountain region in football and played nearly every season. Does it mean a rivalry can be cultivated from that? No. But it does suggest there is some history.
As you can see, there are some dominoes that need to fall to get Utah even on their radar. I'm not sure it happens that way and obviously there are other scenarios that could play out (Arkansas turning them down, meaning they can take Utah/BYU/TCU and keep the current league number at twelve or the Big Ten picking a current Big East program). But it's still a viable option.
The most likely scenario, though, is the Pac Ten option. Right now, the conference is content at ten teams. However, if the Big Ten jumps to 12 (remember, they're at 11 right now), does this force their hands? The expansion of the Big Ten would bring about a conference championship game and I think we can all agree they've played an important role for the SEC and Big 12.
If that happens, the Pac Ten and Big East will be the lone BCS conferences without a title game. Now I think the lack of a conference championship game has hindered the conference, but ultimately they've been able to get away with it because the Big Ten hasn't fallen into the trend, either. If they go, though, it might force the conference into conceding tradition and entering into the dreaded twelve-team league.
Which means they need two teams to fill the void. There is a very good chance Utah is either #1 or #2 on that list. If the Pac Ten does expand, I think we can call agree the Utes are the most likely of any team at any level in the nation to receive that first phone call.
But that's basing all of this on the current setup today. Utah is still riding its 2009 Sugar Bowl win over Alabama and much can change over the course of the next few years. Maybe BYU and Boise State eclipse the Utes fully by 20XX and if that happens, it's possible - though I think unlikely - they become the Pac Ten's #1 and #2.
In the end, this is all speculation and relies on a ton of what ifs. But right now, it appears we're closer than ever to the possibility.