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With Further Expansion Looming, Utah Needs to Treat 2022 as an Audition

Syndication: The Columbus Dispatch Joshua A. Bickel/Columbus Dispatch / USA TODAY NETWORK

As the PAC-12 prepares to bid adieu to the LA schools that have anchored the conference for the last century, Big 10 commissioner Kevin Warren has confirmed that he intends to pursue further expansion, telling HBO’s Bryant Gumble that “perpetual and future growth” to the tune of at least 20 total teams is imminent; a fact that was all but confirmed earlier this week when the details of the conference’s groundbreaking $7 billion media rights deal were publically confirmed and included a caveat for further expansion. While George Kliavkoff still has time to salvage the history of the PAC-12, outmaneuvering the juggernauts of the Big 10 and SEC will be no small task as the conference is already on shakey ground and could be completely destabilized depending on what the next round of movement entails. Thankfully, Utah has been given an opportunity to prove its value to any potential suitors,

It is no secret that Notre Dame is the holy grail (pun fully intended) candidate atop every conference’s wishlist. The notoriously stubborn independent powerhouse has a dedicated national (if not global) fanbase that shares a deep history with many of the Big 10’s current and future members. While it’s entirely possible the Irish continue to stay independent, TV contracts are the major driving force behind this current round of realignment and it seems entirely possible that ND’s current TV partner, CBS, could eventually force their golden goose into a conference before long. The prevailing thought is ND will eventually land in the Big 10, leaving a minimum of three spots still up for grabs. Knowing the importance the Big 10 places on AAU status, the PAC-12 remains the most fertile ground for more poaching. While Stanford, Cal, Oregon and Washington fit the bill academically, only Oregon and Washington bring a certain level of brand appeal, a respectable winning history, and a moderately desirable media market. Stanford and Cal bring with them the lucrative Bay Area footprint but fail to deliver a highly recognizable brand or a rabid fanbase that travels well or even fills their own stadiums on a regular basis. This is where the University of Utah has a chance to position itself as a desirable addition.

Make no mistake, Utah is no more or less a national brand than Stanford or Cal. In fact, on a scale of more to less, Utah probably leans less. What they do have is a 20+ year history of (mostly) consistently good football, a (relatively) storied basketball program, a gymnastics team that would add instant prestige to any conference, and one of the fastest growing media markets in the nation, but let's not get ahead of ourselves here because football is the sole driving factor to realignment, and the timing couldn’t be any better for a program that just won its first P5 conference championship after multiple division titles, competed respectably against THE Ohio State University in the Rose Bowl (their third New Years Six appearance since 2005) and opens their season in the heart of SEC country while carrying a top ten ranking. If the Utes can keep this historic stretch of success going, they are uniquely positioned as a prime candidate when the next wave of expansion crashes long as that assumed success comes to fruition.

And what if the Big 10 decides to pass on Utah? Don’t discount the possibility of the SEC extending an offer. With Texas and Oklahoma joining by 2025, the conference currently stands at 16 members and will surely be looking to match the Big 10’s goal of 20 sooner than later. This is an arms race after all, and there’s no way ESPN’s crown jewel doesn’t also start poaching from rival P5 conferences. While Clemson, Florida State, Miami, North Carolina and Duke out of the ACC would certainly be logical additions to a conference rooted in the southeast, they also come with certain red flags. Adding the likes of Clemson or either Florida-based school fails to expand the conference’s media or recruiting footprint, and the Carolina schools don’t exactly move the needle outside of basketball. Furthermore, ESPN obviously values the late-night programming slot, something that is easier filled by western teams. From a business standpoint, the SEC would be foolish to not consider expanding further west, creating a coast-to-coast conference that could rival the Big 10, and Utah, with its proximity to Texas and Oklahoma, would be a more logical addition than say...Oregon or Washington.

It may seem hyperbolic, but a win in the Swamp followed by a second consecutive PAC-12 championship is resume-building material that could help keep Utah alive as the college sports landscape continues to shift. Failing to deliver on the lofty expectations the program currently holds could leave the university on the outside looking in.