Utah Sports Ruckus: College football in Utah has the flu

By Nate Gagon

For the Deseret News

Published: Monday, Feb. 10 2014 12:30 p.m. MST

College football is about more than just football; we know that. Depending on the school, it can be about a number of different things: school spirit, regional pride, community service, entertainment, money, politics and power. Fans in Utah know it can even be about religion.

For just a moment, though, let’s forget about all the off-field stuff — both the positives like Pac-12 money for the Utes and spiritual firesides for BYU, and the negatives like how the split between the Utes and Cougars has damaged college football in the state — and just talk about the on-field football aspects of college football here in Utah.

It’s not doing very well. It has the flu of happy mediocrity.

Last Wednesday’s national signing day, when college football programs across the country officially announced their newest recruiting classes, loudly reaffirmed this.

The three FBS (Division I-A) programs in the state of Utah introduced recruiting classes that, from an on-field talent perspective, would get people fired at nationally relevant programs.

What does a nationally relevant, national-title-contending program look like? Don’t ask the state of Utah. We don’t have one.

National signing day proved this once again, especially when combined with the other on-field indicators that matter.

The faithful fans and program leaders that try to sell the idea that recruiting rankings don’t matter are not living in reality. If you doubt it, look at the recruiting rankings on ESPN.com, Scout.com or Rivals.com for the past few years. Take note of which teams are consistently near the top, which are near the bottom and which are somewhere in between. Compare the recruiting rankings to the annual BCS standings and you will find undeniable evidence that recruiting rankings translate to on-field success at a high level.

The programs and fans that want/need to will point to the occasional exceptions and proclaim that recruiting rankings are worthless. Unfortunately for college football fans in the state of Utah, the evidence overwhelmingly suggests otherwise.

In the 2014 recruiting class, not a single player from the ESPN 300 (the players ESPN’s recruiting experts identified as the 300 best in the country) signed with Utah, BYU or Utah State. Which programs did these players commit to? The nationally relevant ones.

In 2013 it was the same story. In fact, since ESPN began publishing the ESPN 150 in 2006 and then later expanded this to the ESPN 300, not a single player from those lists has ever committed to a Utah school. Even BYU’s Jake Heaps in 2010 did not make the ESPN 150 list that year, though he was rated much more highly on some other sites. Apparently ESPN got that one right.

It seems reasonable to say that if a college football program wants to be a nationally contending program, or even a top 25 program, it needs to at least land a top 300 player now and then and a few other players highly rated at their respective positions.

This is not happening for our Utah schools.

Whether you look at ESPN, Scout or Rivals, BYU and Utah both had their recruiting classes ranked in the middle of the pack, between No. 60 and No. 70 out of 125 FBS programs. Utah State was closer to the bottom.

Again, those results would get people fired at nationally relevant programs. At our Utah schools, however, it’s quite the opposite. They act thrilled to death about it, propagating a fiction that a No. 60-70 recruiting class is a good thing.

It’s one thing to be mediocre; it’s another thing to be happy about it. It’s another thing still to be happily mediocre and yet continue to talk about national championships and national relevancy.

This year’s recruiting results are on par with what they generally are for the Utes, Cougs and Aggies. These recruiting results, along with the college football standings, lack of NFL draftees, small-time bowl games and other indicators prove that college football in the state of Utah has the flu.

Or, maybe it doesn’t have the flu. Maybe it is exactly what it has always been.

Would BYU have gone undefeated in 1984 playing in a nationally relevant conference? Would the Utes have done so in 2004 or 2008? Would the Aggies have won as many games as they have the last couple years?

Whether or not our state’s college football performance ever was as impressive and relevant as many have believed, hoped or dreamed, the saddest part may be what has happened off the playing field in recent years.

At least we once had a relevant rivalry game and conference bragging rights to talk about. At least BYU and Utah were nationally irrelevant brothers, along with similar programs like TCU and Boise State. In some ways the combined irrelevance and corresponding shoulder chips of these programs gave them relevance and made them compelling and interesting.

Now, Utah can be irrelevant with Colorado in the Pac-12; BYU can be irrelevant independently; TCU can be irrelevant as the Lone Star baby brother in the Big-12; and Boise State can be irrelevant in the Mountain West. Utah State perhaps could have joined its brothers in irrelevant relevance, along with others like Nevada, San Diego State and the military schools. But that ship has sailed.

So, Ute fans rightfully enjoy the Pac-12 money and window stickers. Cougar fans rightfully appreciate the firesides and ESPN exposure. Aggie fans justly enjoy the step up to the Mountain West Conference.

Just don’t get your hopes too high when your coaches and university leaders jump for joy at their 60th ranked recruiting classes or fans disguised as journalists applaud their efforts. Our local programs, at this point in history, are much closer to where the national recruiting rankings place them on the food chain of relevancy than where many have believed, hoped or dreamed they were.

In hindsight

The Ruckus went 7-2 in the crystal ball predictions for last week, with the Jazz’s win over the Heat and the Aggies' win over Boise State being the two misses.

That was a remarkable win for the Jazz Saturday night. Even the rational fans that are hoping for the Jazz to get as many ping pong balls in the upcoming draft as possible could suspend their anti-cheering for one night.

Beating the “we’re going to win eight championships” Miami Heat and Mr. “I’m taking my talents to South Beach” LeBron James is always a worthy cause, no matter who you are or what you stand to gain by losing.

It was a compelling atmosphere at ESA as the Jazz fans and the multitude of Heat fans tried to drown each other out with boos and cheers throughout the evening. In the end, the Heat fans left stunned and humbled, while the Jazz fans were justifiably giddy.

Until the Jazz pulled out the clutch win behind Marvin Williams’ 3-point shooting (5-of-8), Gordon Hayward’s playmaking (11 assists) and Trey Burke’s game-clinching jumper, the highlight of the night was actually 11-year-old Lexi Walker, who sang the national anthem. Mouths hung open throughout the arena as little Lexi belted a tremendous, powerful, classy anthem to kick off a great night for the home crowd.

In beating the reigning two-time champs, the Jazz gave sufficient signs that their young team is on the right track. Now they can get back to racking up losses and ping pong balls.

***

The BYU men’s basketball team is refusing to go quietly into the NIT. Even before beating Santa Clara and San Francisco last week, ESPN’s bracketology expert, Joe Lunardi, had the Cougars in the NCAA Tournament as one of the “last four in,” playing in the opening play-in round.

The Cougars handled Santa Clara easily on Thursday with a balanced effort led by Tyler Haws (9-of-12 shooting) while versus the Dons on Saturday they pulled the game out in the last few minutes led by Matt Carlino and Eric Mika. In the two games, BYU out-rebounded its opponents by an astounding combined margin of 97-61.

The Cougars now sit alone at second place in the West Coast Conference and are surprisingly but clearly back in the NCAA Tournament picture.

***

Meanwhile, up north the Utes pounded the two Washington Pac-12 schools by a combined 27 points. The Utes are tied for seventh in the conference but are only two games behind third-place Arizona State.

Sophomore guard Brandon Taylor has seemingly emerged as the No. 3 guy for the Utes in support of Jordan Loveridge and Delon Wright. Taylor racked up 36 points, seven assists and 11 rebounds on 22 shot attempts in the two games last week.

After the two victories, the Utes have an impressive ESPN BPI ranking of No. 38, nine spots higher than the Cougars, which would seem to put them within striking distance of the NCAA Tournament bubble.

***

Elsewhere in men’ basketball, the Weber State Wildcats had a good week with two home wins and now lead the Big Sky Conference by three full games over a four-pack of teams. The Aggies also had a nice week, bouncing back from a five-game losing streak with two home wins over Nevada and Boise State. The WAC-leading Utah Valley Wolverines had just one game, a road victory over second-place Grand Canyon. Yes, there is a school called Grand Canyon in the WAC now.

***

On the women’s side, BYU climbed into second place in the WCC with road wins over Santa Clara and San Francisco. The Cougars now sit at 9-4 in conference and 19-5 overall. The Utes got worked over by Oregon and are 11th in the Pac-12 with a 3-8 record. The Aggie women are at 4-7, good for eighth in the MWC. Utah Valley is 1-8 in the WAC and Weber State is 0-12 in the Big Sky.

***

In other sports, the fourth-ranked Utah women’s gymnastics team beat No. 13 Arizona on Friday, while BYU’s fourth-ranked men’s volleyball team beat Cal Baptist on Monday.

For those interested in hockey, the Utah Grizzlies have been one of the hottest teams in the ECHL and goaltender Aaron Dell was named Goaltender of the Month in January. The team is on the road until Feb. 17.

In high school basketball, the state of Utah has three boys teams ranked in the top 50 of the country by Max Preps. Lone Peak, which barely defeated American Fork last week, is first in the state and No. 30 in the country; while Bountiful and Alta, the other top two teams in the state, are also in the top 50 nationally.

Trophies:

Local team of the week: BYU men’s basketball team.

For the second straight week, the Cougars are the team of the week after going 2-0. While the Jazz beat the Heat, they also got blown out at home by the Raptors and on the road versus the Mavericks. While the Utes, Aggies and Wildcats also went 2-0, BYU had the most to lose and knocked off San Francisco, which at the time was the second-place team in the WCC.

Local athlete of the week: Sage Kotsenburg, Olympic snowboarder.

Kotsenburg, from Park City, won the first gold medal of the Sochi Winter Olympics in the men’s slopestyle snowboarding competition.

Local sports moment of the week: Trey Burke’s 19-foot jumper with 24 seconds left versus Miami.

With the shot clock running out and the Jazz up just two after a Heat rally, Trey Burke stepped into a contested 19-foot jumper that he drained with 24 seconds left to help seal the deal versus the two-time defending champs. This came after two clutch 3-pointers by Marvin Williams, two smooth free throws from Derrick Favors and a jumper from Richard Jefferson kept the Jazz in front in the final minutes.

Local notable stat of the week: Gordon Hayward's box score versus Miami.

Hayward shook off some early missed layups and sluggish play to finish with a near trouble-double versus LeBron and the Heat. He had nine points, nine rebounds, 11 assists and three steals with a plus/minus of +11 in his 38 minutes.

Overall Ruckus rating for the local week in sports: On a scale of 1-to-5.

Rating: 3 — about average. The Jazz’s win over the Heat, the first gold medal of the Olympics and a whole bunch of college basketball home victories for in-state teams highlighted the week.

Eye on the prize: What's on the line this week.

The Jazz play back-to-back on Tuesday/Wednesday this week, beginning at the Lakers and then home versus the 76ers. This weekend is the NBA's All-Star weekend.

The BYU men play a Thursday/Saturday set on the road at Pacific and then at Saint Mary’s on Saturday in the week’s most important upcoming game.

The Utes also play a Thursday/Saturday road set at USC and at UCLA. The Trojans and Bruins will both be looking to avenge losses at the Huntsman Center in mid-January.

What to watch: Best games of the upcoming week.

NCAAM: No. 1 Syracuse at No. 25 Pittsburgh, Wednesday, 5 p.m. on ESPN

NCAAM: No. 11 Duke at North Carolina, Wednesday, 7 p.m. on ESPN

NCAAM: No. 3 Florida at No. 18 Kentucky, Saturday, 7 p.m. on ESPN

NCAAM: BYU at Saint Mary’s, Saturday, 6 p.m. on ESPN 2

NCAAM: Utah at UCLA, Saturday, 3 p.m. on PAC 12 Network

NBA: Thunder at Trail Blazers, Tuesday, 8 p.m. on NBA TV

NBA: Jazz at Lakers, Tuesday, 8:30 p.m. on ROOT

NBA: Heat at Warriors, Wednesday, 8:30 p.m. on NBA TV

NBA: All-Star weekend, Friday through Sunday on TNT

Winter Olympics on NBC

Crystal ball: Predictions for the week.

1. Jazz: 1-1

2. Cougar men: 1-1

3. Ute men: 1-1

4. Aggie men: 1-1

Poll question of the week: What are your thoughts? Poll to the left.

Which do you find the most compelling: NBA All-Star weekend, the Winter Olympics or this weekend’s college basketball games?

Parting thought: I hate goodbyes.

In honor of the Jazz playing the Lakers this week, I leave you with a link to an entertaining 1998 Sports Illustrated article analyzing the Jazz’s sweep of L.A. in the playoffs that year. The article refers to Malone and Stockton as “old geezers.” It's hard to believe it was really that long ago.

http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/vault/article/magazine/MAG1012991/index.htm.

Nate Gagon is the author of the weekly sports column, Utah Sports Ruckus, and contributor for the Deseret News. He is also an entrepreneur, shoots roughly 94% from the foul line, and can be reached at nategagon@hotmail.com or @nategagon.

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