SALT LAKE CITY — Today is a big day for the big two sports at the University of Utah, football and men's basketball. One off the field and one on the court. Today will play a big role in determining Utah's early tenure in the Pac-12 for football and likewise could determine the direction for Utah's final basketball season in the Mountain West Conference.
On the football front, it's national letter-of-intent day around the country. It's a day the coaching staffs work an entire year for, a day that can be every bit as big as one of the 12 regular-season football games. It's an especially big day for the Utes, because this is essentially their first recruiting class as they transition from a non-AQ program to becoming a member of the Pac-12. Kyle Whittingham and his staff have had eight months of being able to sell recruits on Utah as a BCS conference school, and today we find out just how successful they've been.
I don't profess to be a recruit-nik; there are many out there that do a much better job than me at following the process. According to rivals.com, the Utes are the No. 2 non-AQ school in terms of commitments attained leading up to signing day, but how does that jibe with their surroundings in the Pac-12? If you go by the rivals.com rankings system (a system that no one can quite figure out), the Utes rank No. 39 nationally, but fifth in terms of Pac-12 schools, with USC, Oregon, Cal and Stanford ranking ahead of them.
I've never been someone who worships at the altar of recruiting rankings, because in a sport like football it's so hard to project how kids will translate at the next level. And with a program like Utah that has done such an outstanding job in developing players and finding talent, rankings have meant very little over the years. But as the Utes make their transition over the next couple of years, their ability to beat out the USCs and Oregons will be paramount in challenging for Pac-12 titles.
Tonight in Las Vegas, Jim Boylen's Runnin' Utes will look to get back on the winning track. After winning three straight games, the Utes fell at home to Colorado State on Saturday afternoon. The Utes were in position to move into a third-place tie in the league, but instead find themselves in a three-way tie for fifth.
Boylen has talked to me about his team getting better but they still aren't "tough enough" in his mind. Tonight marks the midway point of the Mountain West season, and if the Utes are going to get "Boylen Tough," Vegas would be a good place to start.
UNLV comes in a 16-5 overall and 4-3 in conference play. The Rebels will challenge Utah with great guard play, led by Tre'Von Willis, Anthony Marshall, Oscar Bellfield and Derrick Jasper. Nobody in the MWC has better and deeper guard play than Lon Kruger. The third position in the league is still up for grabs and a possibility for the Utes, but only if they can grab a win or two on the road and protect their home floor at the Huntsman.
Bill Riley can be heard as the radio voice of the University of Utah on game days and also on weekdays from 2-6 p.m. on the "Bill and Spence Show" on ESPN Radio 700 AM.