Utah Sports Ruckus: College football in Utah has potential

By Nate Gagon

For the Deseret News

Published: Tuesday, Feb. 18 2014 8:50 a.m. MST

Judging from reader comments after last week’s article, it seems this is exactly what Utah State Aggie fans have done. Said one Aggie fan: “Utah State is never going to be a “nationally relevant” football program. I am a rabid Aggie fan, but realize that Logan, Cache Valley, and Utah in general, will not attract the caliber of player to compete consistently with Utah, BYU, not to mention Power conference schools. The goal for my Aggies is to rise above mediocre and win its conference championship. So far, without question, USU is the most improved team in the state, and that is what is relevant.”

Enough said, then, on the Aggies.

For fans of the Cougars and Utes, however, the situation is more complicated. BYU rocked the college football world by winning a national championship in 1984, which unquestionably stands as one of the most remarkable, improbable feats in the modern era of American sports. If the BCS system had been in place then, BYU would not have had that opportunity.

The Utes know this better than most, since they did not get a sniff at the BCS title game despite two undefeated seasons in five years from 2004-2008. Utah’s convincing victory over Alabama in the 2008 Sugar Bowl, like BYU’s national championship, was also one of the most remarkable, improbable feats in the modern era of American sports. I think even most Cougar fans would admit that Utah’s Sugar Bowl trouncing of Alabama was a more impressive victory than any the Cougs had during their national championship season.

Our top two local college football programs and their fans have both tasted national relevancy in small doses in the past and both want it again on a more permanent basis.

The fact is, however, since Utah sold-out, er, sprinted to the Pac-12 and BYU jumped ship to independence, neither program has finished a season in the AP Top 25.

This came on the heels of a four-year stretch for BYU from 2006-2009 when it finished at No. 16, No. 14, No. 25 and No. 12 and a stretch for Utah from 2003-2009 when it finished in the AP Top 25 four times and in the top five twice.

Ah, the good old Mountain West days when merely decent recruiting classes could get you into the Top 25 and the national conversation.

As college football and the world continues to evolve, who knows what will happen? It’s anybody’s guess as to what the world will look like in 20-30 years. The Detroit Lions may even win a playoff game by then.

On one hand, the future looks bright for BYU. If The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, which sponsors BYU, was a publicly traded company, it would be well worth buying long-term stock. The LDS Church is a growing, organized, powerful force with over 80,000 missionaries throughout the world and 15 million members. As the church continues to grow in numbers, influence and mainstream acceptance, BYU’s recruiting base will continually expand, not only in the U.S. but just about everywhere in the world.

On the other hand, the powers-that-be in college football are working hard to grow the divide even further between the haves and the have-nots, with lots of talk going on about creating a new elite division, paying players, etc.

It seems reasonable to say that BYU, in its current situation, appears to be in serious jeopardy of becoming a “have-not,” second-tier football program. The Cougars have been unable to get into a nationally relevant conference, have been unable to secure any impressive bowl affiliations, and have not finished in the AP Top 25 since the 2009 season.

The University of Utah is in a totally different situation. The Utes are already in a power conference and really need to just figure out how to be relevant in it. The nice thing for them is that by becoming a premier program in the Pac-12 the Utes will become nationally relevant as well — two birds with one stone.

Thus, if I had to choose, I would rather be Utah than BYU right now because regardless of on-field success or failure, the Utes’ future as a top-tier college sports university seems to be secure.

If BYU can secure its place among the in-crowd of American college athletics, at that point I would rather be BYU. The Cougars’ LDS affiliation gives them significant and ever-growing advantages. If the school down south can avoid being pushed aside as college football evolves over the next few years (i.e. if it can get into a big conference), it should have a decent chance of becoming a nationally relevant program in several sports, including football, in the decades to come.

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