Mike Sorensen: Pac-12's 9-game conference schedule makes it tough for Utes to play in-state rivals
SALT LAKE CITY — There was a lot of talk last week about the possible demise of the Utah-Utah State football series, about how Friday's game might be the last one ever played in Logan. A month earlier, everyone was talking about the two-year gap in the annual Utah-BYU football series and how the future of the rivalry game could be in jeopardy.
Utah is right in the middle of two games between their primary rivals from the past century of football. Next year Utah will play both Utah State and BYU again along with another in-state school, Weber State.
However in 2014, the Utes aren't scheduled to play any Utah schools and it may be awhile before they play two in-state schools the same year again.
You can blame the Utah athletic administration for not making accommodations to schedule in-state schools and preferring to get less-challenging games to balance out a tough Pac-12 slate with occasional intersectional games.
But part of the blame lies with the Pac-12 for insisting on a nine-game league schedule, which hamstrings a school like Utah whose traditional rivals are not in the conference.
It's not a problem for the rest of the conference schools, except Colorado, which plays an annual game against Colorado State. Every other school has its primary rival in the conference — USC-UCLA, Arizona-Arizona State, Cal-Stanford, etc. — which makes it easier for those schools to schedule non-conference opponents.
With not one, but two longtime football rivals, Utah is in a unique situation among Pac-12 schools.
When I recently asked Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott about the league's plan for a nine-game schedule, he was unwavering in his support.
"We thought a lot about it over the last couple of years as we expanded," Scott said. "We re-affirmed that the idea of a nine-game schedule is great for us. Our schools like playing against each other. The fans turn out — we get a better turnout than we do for some of the non-conference games. Our TV partners like it. Our schools like the competition and want to play each other more often than less."
All that makes sense for the schools other than Utah. However, the fact is, the league is at a possible disadvantage compared other conferences such as the SEC and Big Ten, which play just eight league games.
We've addressed this problem before. If a league can add an extra "easy" non-conference game rather than play a tougher league opponent, it's more likely to get an extra win. That particularly helps teams vying for a national championship. The Pac-12 is going to have at least six extra losses as a whole by playing an extra league game.
But Scott doesn't see it as a disadvantage for his conference.
"We're doing it differently, no doubt," he said. "If you look at some of the matchups our schools have, they're pretty good. Look what Utah's done with the home-and-home with Michigan (in 2014-15). A lot of other conferences wouldn't do that."
Scott also pointed out how Arizona was playing Oklahoma State and Oregon State was playing Wisconsin this week, and both turned out of be wins for the Pac-12 schools against ranked schools (along with UCLA's win over Nebraska).
"Our schools tend to like those kind of games," Scott said. "Our conference has a tradition of playing tough competition."
As for the difficulty of Utah being able to play BYU on an annual basis in the future, Scott said, "It's really a school decision. We've set up the calendar for the first three weeks of the season so schools can still schedule their own non-conference opponents. I know the history of (the Utah-BYU) rivalry, but we don't really get involved with scheduling out-of-conference games."
Scott also addressed the issue of letting Utah and BYU play later in the season, saying the only non-league games allowed after the first three weeks are "grandfathered" traditional games for USC and Stanford against Notre Dame.
Hill is on record as saying he would favor an eight-game league schedule and Whittingham recently made his feelings known on the subject.
"It would make things more flexible all the way around if you had an eight-team conference schedule," Whittingham said. "I would definitely be in favor of a conference schedule that allows more flexibility."
What will likely happen is that the Utes will eventually play one of the two in-state rivals on an annual basis.
If the Pac-12 keeps its nine-game schedule, which is likely if you listen to Scott, then the Utes could play the Cougars or Aggies at home on years when they have five Pac-12 road games and on the road when they have five home games.
It's not a perfect solution, but with less flexibility due to the nine-game Pac-12 schedule, that's how Utah is going to keep the rivalries with BYU and Utah State alive.
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