The NCAA and the Power 5 conferences have recently shaken the ground of the competitive landscape nationwide, but in Utah the divide between the three football playing schools could get wider. In addition to the NCAA's proposal to give the Power 5 conference schools autonomy in areas like scholarships covering the full cost of attendance, continuing education, insurance against loss of future earnings, and potential stipends. Additional tremors rumbled through the landscape, as rumors surfaced that the Power 5 conference might break away from the NCAA altogether and form a separate division of sports.
While this was happening, scheduling became more difficult for non Power 5 conferences, as the Atlantic Coast Conference and the Southeastern Conference both created rules whereby their members must play at least one team from another Power 5 conference each year. If the ACC and SEC schools continue to schedule lesser division schools and regional non-conference games, fewer and fewer schedule slots will be open for teams like Utah State and BYU.
In the modern era of football, especially in the BCS era, the Aggies have always been on the outside looking in. Utah State fans were probably comforted by the fact that their in-state rivals were in the same boat. But in 2010 that all changed. With Utah a member of the Pac-12 conference, BYU now independent (but with far deeper pockets), and the proposed changes to the NCAA, the Aggies are in danger of slipping even farther behind than they started. Like the Cougars, the Aggies face the reality of having a more difficult time scheduling quality out-of-conference competition, but unlike the Cougars, Utah State doesn't carry even the fading cachet of a national championship or Heisman Trophy winner.
Jeff Browning of the Front Row Show podcast admits that Aggie fans are frustrated seeing their team get systemically frozen out, especially at a time when their football program may be the strongest it has been since the days of Merlin Olsen.
Has independence been a success? That depends on your criteria and who you ask. Certainly the Cougars have been winning, even beating national competition (like their complete dismantling of Texas last season). But even their 8-5 record in 2013 was marred by a fourth straight loss to their Power 5 conference in-state rival, as well as embarrassing losses in the opener to Virginia and the Fight Hunger Bowl to another Pac-12 school, Washington. But most telling is the fact that the boys in blue, despite three eight- or more-win seasons, have never managed to qualify for a BCS bowl game, while Central Florida and Northern Illinois have.
As if things couldn't get worse for the team down south, scheduling quality competition as an independent will become more and more difficult. While the SEC and ACC will remain at an eight-game schedule, they will not count the Cougars as a Power 5 conference team for purposes of the non-conference scheduling rule. Along with the Pac-12 playing nine conference games and the Big Ten moving to a nine-game conference slate, that leaves fewer and fewer available games for the boys in blue. Schedules like the upcoming 2014 campaign, which the NCAA rates as the 97th strongest out of 128 teams (71-81 win-loss record, 46.71%, in 2013 for scheduled opponents), could be the norm in the future, rather than the exception.
However, athletic director, Tom Holmoe is not one to throw in the towel. He has pledged to keep up with the Joneses in whatever financial manner is necessary, including scholarships and stipends. Clearly, the Cougars have the financial backing to make good on such a declaration, but will it be enough to garner inclusion in a new round of Power 5 conference expansion? If not, even with their ESPN partnership, with lucrative bowl berths becoming less and less available and scheduling issues mounting, will the Cougars be forced to join a non Power 5 conference, perhaps even return to the Mountain West Conference?
The state's only Power 5 conference school, Utah has had a rough go of its first three years in the Pac-12, with just one winning season and one bowl game. However, it appears Utah made the jump to the big leagues (along with former MWC cohort TCU) just in time. The proposed "autonomy" for the Power 5 conferences, as well as the national playoffs and conference schedules, not to mention Utah's new, state-of-the-art facilities, could give the Utes a decided recruiting advantage over the other in-state schools. And the 800-pound gorilla in the room is that if the Power 5 conference schools create a separate NCAA division, Utah would be the only team in the state playing at the highest level of competition. Financially, competitively, and recruiting-wise, that would be the game ending touchdown.