What is your overall expectations for this program?
Can they contend for the national championship - maybe win a national championship? I'm not talking an Alabama-like program that is almost always in contention for a title even before a game is played, but a team that can, every so often, rise up and contend for a title. Maybe a program like Oregon or Wisconsin or Virginia Tech. Not necessarily historical college football powers, but good enough, consistent enough, that when you say, "hey, they have a legitimate shot at winning it all", it doesn't sound implausible.
Granted, none of those programs has ever won the championship, but two have played for it and is that a realistic expectation for Utah? Can this program, that the last 10 years has played in two BCS bowls, produced two undefeated seasons and averaged just a shade under 10 wins, elevate its way into the true national picture?
Is any of that possible?
I think it is. This team has proven a lot the last decade or so and I see no reason to underestimate or shortchange its potential. Granted, no one can predict the future and certainly we're in a transition phase as this team is still mostly built of Mountain West Conference talent, but I've got to believe that we can and will catch up with the Pac-12 and then we'll be able to continue building something special here.
I've come to this conclusion not just because of what Utah has done but because of what can be done. This isn't a geographically limited program. We're not out in the boonies where it's tough to recruit. We're not Texas Tech or Baylor or even Washington State. Salt Lake City is a growing metropolitan area in one of the fastest growing states in the country. Sure, there are still a lot of stigmas associated with Utah and those aren't going to die tomorrow or next year or even in five years, but I've noticed that the perception of this state is vastly different than it was in 2002 and 1992 (okay, I don't know what the perception was in '92 because I was barely out of diapers).
Players are not nearly as turned off by Utah as they might have been in the past and because that perception has changed, our recruiting has dramatically improved. We're getting players that, just seven or so years ago, wouldn't realistically look at the program. A great deal of that is because of the winning, and certainly if you win, it's a far easier sell to those to come play in Utah than when you're losing. But some of it is because we've seen changes. Salt Lake isn't just this tucked away backwater town anymore in the eyes of many. It's a growing community with a large Hispanic population and, depending on where you're at, has that typical city vibe. It doesn't hurt that the community, especially these last few years, has embraced the football program and made it one of the premier sports in not just the Valley, but the entire state as a whole.
That helps with potential. In the 1980s, Salt Lake squandered that because it was untapped. More and more fans decided to take I-15 on down to Provo to watch a real football team and it cost not just the community, but the University. It helped balloon the Cougar fan base into one that was, at times, smaller than that at the U and made it one of most committed and largest in the western United States.
It took a while, but eventually the program got it right and we started laying the foundation for what we're seeing today. But this is still all fairly new to Utah. There has been growing pains, not just on the football field, but in the football stands, as Utah fans get a better understanding of their role in this whole development. But we're getting there.
Today, the University announced that season ticket renewal is at 98%. Back in 2002, that would have been an unattainable goal. We've now done that two seasons in a row. That's big for this program. That's 32,000 renewals, coupled with 7,000 tickets allocated for the students and 2,500 for visiting teams, and now you're already pushing capacity even before one single ticket has gone on sale to the general public.
Only one other Pac-12 team was over capacity on average last season and that was Oregon.
We're bursting at the seams here. Sooner or later, hopefully sooner rather than later, the program will finally expand the stadium to bump up those attendance figures and offer more fan opportunity to those who aren't able to attend games this season.
But the overall point here is that everything is in place for something good to be grown out of what we've already built. I think Salt Lake has shown its commitment to supporting this team. The potential of the fan base growing is exceptional just as long as Utah continues to grow. The team plays in a great stadium, with great fans, and now has a beautiful practice facility under construction. We've got one of the top head coaches in the country, a proven track record of getting players to the NFL and, more important than ever, actual winning history.
That I can't stress enough. This isn't like a program that might one day possibly be good. We've been good. We've been to the BCS. We've finished with high rankings. So, now the job is to turn that into something more, to take this to the next level and really position ourselves for a run at a championship. Maybe it won't happen frequently and maybe it will be a once-every-decade thing. But I believe it can and I hope it will.
So, am I being too optimistic here? Did we play above ourselves in the Mountain West and now that the talent is more consistent and better in the Pac-12, we'll be only, on average, slightly better than what we were last season - or is this team ready for the big time?