The year was 2009 and the University of Utah and Texas Christian University were the belles of the ball in the Mountain West Conference. Utah was coming off an undefeated season and Sugar Bowl win, and TCU was in the process of completing and undefeated regular season along with Western Athletic Conference champ Boise State. The three programs had been challenging the BCS vs. non-BCS hierarchy for several years and it felt like something had to give.
Give it did, as the college football world shifted dramatically in 2010, with conference realignment tilting the world of college athletics. The SEC, Pac-10 and Big Ten conferences all expanded while the Big 12 and Big East were left fighting for their life. When all was said and done, and the dust had cleared, two "non-BCS" schools had found their way to the big boys table. Those two schools were Utah, joining the Pac-12 in 2011 and TCU, joining the Big 12 in 2012. Critics who had been clamoring for non-BCS schools to get a chance finally got their wish.
Immediately Utah and TCU were thrust into the national spotlight as test cases for whether or not a school from a smaller conference could make the leap. Many claimed, both schools were in for a rude awakening and that neither would be able to handle "the grind" of major college football. Initially the doubters were proved correct as both Utah and TCU struggled in their initial seasons in what was now dubbed a "Power 5" conference.
Utah, despite finishing the 2011 season 8-5 with a Sun Bowl victory, finished only 4-5 in conference. TCU finished their inaugural season similarly, with an overall record of 7-6 and 4-5 in conference. The gap in talent was apparent at the skill positions, particularly for Utah. The Utes matched up well enough on both the offensive and defensive lines, however there was a need for more speed on the edges.
In order to compete, both programs needed to start recruiting higher caliber players. Both schools rose to the challenge pulling in better recruiting classes with their new conference affiliations. In the five years prior to joining the Pac-12, Utah’s average recruiting class ranking was 44.4 using Scout rankings. In the five seasons since joining the Pac-12, the average ranking has risen to 39.8. TCU appears to have had the bigger boost. In the five seasons prior to joining the Big 12, their recruiting classes ranked 66.6. Since joining the Big 12 their average class rank has sky rocketed to 36.5, a difference of 30.1 in class ranking.
Even with the addition of Pac-12 level recruits, the improvement on the field was not immediate. It took time for the newer brand of recruits to develop. Utah followed up it’s inaugural season in the Pac-12 with two 5-7 seasons before finally breaking out last year with a 9-4 campaign and a top-25 finish. Now in it’s fifth season of Pac-12 membership, Utah sits 4-0, having just knocked Oregon out of the top 25 for the first time since 2009. TCU finished just outside the playoff last season and this year is considered a legitimate national title contender. A glance at the AP poll, shows both schools sitting in the top 10 only five years removed from "non-BCS" status.
The rapid success achieved by each school in Power 5 conferences is a testament to the dedication each program has made in competing with other major universities. The Utah athletic program has expended much effort into catching up with other programs in the way of facility upgrades, as evidenced by this week’s opening of the new basketball facility and the newly installed turf at Rice-Eccles stadium. The ability to attract new recruits is the lifeblood of any college football program, and Utah has wasted no time, not only in upgrading facilities, but acclimating to Pac-12 recruiting, rolling out new uniform combinations regularly, and putting together a social media presence to connect with recruits.
While critics may have been correct in the very short term about the little guys not being able to compete, Utah and TCU have validated their inclusion into the Power 5 with their recent success. Moving forward, both schools are positioned to continue their success with established head coaches who have a history of loyalty to their programs. Five years after breaking through the barrier of haves and have-nots, Utah and TCU have proven the little guy can make it big, all it takes is a little time.