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What if college football had a playoff?

This is Part One of a Two Part series. Check back for the second at a later date.

Better yet, what impact would it have on Utah's current football program? 

Sure, we like to discuss the possibility of a playoff happening and how it would better college football as a whole, but there really isn't discussion from the point of a view of a program like Utah. One that has gone undefeated twice in four years, only to be slited by the BCS. 

What I mean is that the success of a program is often based on its surroundings. Utah basketball built its tradition through tournament success, even though their regular season success is rivaled by that of BYU. Had college basketball employed a system much like what has been established in college football, it's extremely likely those deep tournament runs do not happen. There is no Cinderella and no real underdog, as most non-Power teams would be regulated to a second-tier basketball bowl game. 

So if college football had a system similar to basketball, how would that have changed the course of Utah football history and would a championship, either in 1994, 2004 or 2008, be likely? 

The question is probably impossible to answer, but speculation can at least point us in the right direction. If you look at the general proposals of a football playoff, you see that Utah's only real path to the Football Dance would be by winning their conference. That's how this scenario is best played out and we'll use those proposals as a template to discuss the possible ramifications of a college football playoff. 


I listed 1994 above because it was one of the better seasons in Utah history. Unfortunately, it was also a season the Utes did not win the WAC, so it's very probable Utah would have been left out of the college football tournament, even though they were ranked and were having the best season in school history. 

This would have been difficult for fans to swallow, because I believe the 1994 team was one of the most talented teams in Utah history and very likely could have made noise if there were a post-season. 


Utah shares the WAC with Air Force, BYU and Colorado State, but has a pretty mediocre 7-4 record. Under  the tie-breaker rules used by the WAC in 1995, Colorado State would have received the tournament bid for the second consecutive year, which was evident by them playing in the 1995 Holiday Bowl. 

Again, Utah misses out on the college football playoff, which isn't surprising, because not many people felt the Utes could contend for the conference title prior to the 1995 season. With that said, Ron McBride would have been in his sixth season and still wouldn't have a tournament appearance to show for it. That would become an increasingly troubling trend for the program in the next few seasons.


The Utes, along with Air Force, BYU, Colorado State, New Mexico, San Diego State, UNLV and Wyoming all still bolt the WAC and form the Mountain West. In its inaugural season, Utah again shares the title, this time with just BYU and Colorado State.  As it was in 1994 and 1995, Colorado State once again receives the conference's bid to the NCAA Tournament, as they owned the tie-breaker over Utah & BYU -- they played in the 1999 Liberty Bowl that year. 

Which again sets up doubt that Ron McBride, now in ten seasons, has failed to get Utah to the College Football Tournament. 

What's interesting is that if a tournament had been employed over the course of the first ten years McBride coached Utah, it's likely nothing really changes for the Utes up until the 2000 season. 


This is where Utah begins to show its decline under Ron McBride. A season after a co-championship, a bowl game and 9-wins, Utah plummets to a 4-7 record. Now in real life, McBride was given another shot because the Utes had done fairly well under his leadership. But with a college football playoff, the whole landscape of the game is different. Instead of just being rewarded for bowl games and 9-wins and a shared championship, coaches are now being graded by tournament appearances. 

In that regard, McBride has failed and you've got to think the losing season, coupled with a failure to get Utah into the College Football Tournament would have been his undoing. In reality, McBride was brought back for two more seasons, but he almost lost his job in 2000 anyway. So it really isn't a stretch to see McBride losing his job in 2000 instead of 2002. 

Of course, that move completely changes the future of Utah football. Urban Meyer was an assistant at Notre Dame in 2000 and it's very unlikely he would have even registered on Utah's radar, especially since he wasn't even a coordinator there. 

That means there is no Urban Meyer at Utah. Instead, the Utes now have to look for another option. 

So who do they go after? Kyle Whittingham, the DC under McBride, would have probably been a candidate for the job. But, as was the case in 2002, it's likely Chris Hill overlooks him for a candidate with head coaching experience. 

Candidates with experience that might have been on Chris Hill's radar include:

Gary Pinkel of Toledo

Pinkel was coming off a 10-1 season with the Rockets in 2000 and had established himself as one of the best up and coming head coaches in the country. This move could be likely, since Utah was able to pluck Urban Meyer from Toledo's rival Bowling Green, however, they would have had to fight Missouri for his services, as in reality, that's where Pinkel went after the 2000 season.

Terry Hoeppner of Miami Ohio

Hoeppner probably would have been an unlikely choice, as his first two years at Miami (1999 and 2000) were fairly mediocre. However, it's a name I could have seen batted around, especially with Miami's history of providing successful coaches for larger programs.

Bob Pruett of Marshall

Another unlikely hire, since Pruett seemed content with Marshall. But it's a name that you can't ignore, especially since in 2000, they would have received the MAC bid to the College Football Tournament. 

Dirk Koetter of Boise State

Much like Pinkel, Koetter appeared to be an up and coming coach, especially after two back-to-back 10-win seasons and what would be two consecutive tournaments. He also would have been a regional hire familiar to Utah and their fans, since the Broncos had upset the Utes in both 1998 and 1999. Of course, like Pinkel, the Utes would have had to battle Arizona State, as that's where he ended up in reality. 

Bruce Snyder of Arizona State

The former Arizona State coach who was fired after the 2000 season. Snyder had success at Utah State, Cal and Arizona State, before back-to-back 6-win seasons forced him out. 

Jim Donnan of Georgia

He had been fired by Georgia, even though the Bulldogs won 67% of their games under his leadership.

Jim Grobe of Ohio

Grobe didn't have amazing success at Ohio, but he did do more than most coaches have in the program's history. He was also receiving interest from Wake Forest, the program he would take over in 2000. 

There might have been a darkhorse or two, but this looks like a good list of probable coaching candidates for that season. 

Missouri waited no time in hiring Pinkel after firing Larry Smith in real life, so it's likely the Utes would have had to act quickly after the BYU game if they wanted a chance. Pinkel also had interest from Rutgers, Arizona State and Maryland. However, none of those programs, outside of Arizona State, had done much in terms of football, especially Missouri. The Tigers only had two winning seasons in 17 years prior to his hire, so it's not like he was taking over a decent program, let alone a power. 

This leads me to believe a program like Utah would have been interesting for Pinkel, who had grown tired of playing ball in the MAC. Of course, there is a huge difference between coaching in the Big 12, ACC, Pac Ten and coaching in the Mountain West, but stability and risk had to play a role in his decision making. Add the fact that college football would have a playoff and he's not nearly as handicapped playing in a non-Power conference as he would be in real life.

So after quickly interviewing Pinkel, Chris Hill offers him the job, a hefty pay raise, a new stadium and the promise to have universal resources to turn Utah into a power. Pinkel accepts and becomes Utah's 19th head coach.

This is where things might have become very interesting. Kyle Whittingham, who was passed over for the job, very well could have been offered the defensive coordinator position under Pinkel, but his alma mater also had an opening, as LaVell Edwards would have still retired after the 2000 season. 

Would BYU hire Whittingham, knowing he didn't get the Utah job? Or would they choose experience with Gary Crowton? Crowton seemed to be the man the Cougars wanted the second Edwards announced he was retiring and because of that, I feel Crowton most likely would have still been selected as BYU's next head coach. 

But I do believe Crowton could have offered Whittingham the defensive coordinator position down in Provo, as something similar had happened in 2002 when Ron McBride was fired. But, as it was back then, Whittingham chooses to stick with the Utes and agrees to coach Pinkel's defense. 

In Part Two, Pinkel's regime takes over, but how much of an impact would it have in 2001 and what does this mean for the future of Utah football?