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Utah Sports Ruckus: College football in Utah has potential

Published: Thursday, July 30 2015 7:41 p.m. MDT

Utah running back James Poole runs against  BYU linebacker Kyle Van Noy during on Saturday, Sept. 21, 2013. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News) Utah running back James Poole runs against BYU linebacker Kyle Van Noy during on Saturday, Sept. 21, 2013. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

Last week, the Utah Sports Ruckus weekly column opened with a commentary on the state of college football in Utah, citing the recruiting rankings from the recent national signing day and other data to support its main thesis that college football in the state has “the flu of happy mediocrity.”

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

Readers responded quickly and passionately, with a wide range of opinions. Ute and Cougar fans, of course, mined the article for points to use against their rival fans, with both sides convinced that the article supported their claim to rivalry superiority.

Many readers mostly agreed with the article; some offered their own analysis of the subject; a few were indifferent; and some were angered by it or found it too negative.

One such impassioned reader stated (edited for spelling and grammar): “So the fans of our Utah schools should just dump the system and their favorite teams and only watch "relevant" sports programs? It's kind of like your journalistic skills. You are in an irrelevant journalist market (as you define it) and apparently don't have the talent to get into the big markets such as L.A., N.Y. or Chicago, just as you suggest these student athletes don't have the skills to go to the NFL or win championships. Thus, like the sports teams you want us viewers to dump, your argument can be applied to you. Be careful what you're writing because you just might be writing about yourself.”

Ouch.

In reality, however, I made no mention of “market” size or market relevancy, nor did I encourage anyone to stop supporting or watching their favorite teams.

The article merely stated that according to data points like recruiting rankings, on-field results, bowl games and player placement in the NFL, “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.”

Notable in that last statement is the phrase: “at this point in history.” I did not decree that there is no hope or potential for our local college football programs to become nationally relevant. To proclaim that would be inaccurate and presumptive. The seeds for greatness might be there, especially for Utah and BYU.

The thing is, whether you are a person or organization, to make real progress you have to be willing to do one of the most difficult things in life: analyze yourself honestly and acknowledge where you truly are. You cannot get to where you want to be if you deceive yourself about where you are.

If an ailing person is too stubborn, naïve, or proud to honestly acknowledge the facts and realities of his/her health status, he/she will likely never improve.

Whether a person is ill or not, I suppose, can be a matter of opinion. If a person is happy or content with his/her health, it may take a lot of poking and prodding from family members and friends — or in this case, fans — to get him/her to finally do something about it.

Sometimes a person’s health deficiencies may simply be a matter of genetics, in which case it is what it is and will not change despite a person’s best efforts. In that case, it is necessary to set expectations and goals that are more clearly achievable.

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.

The path to national relevance for the school up north is a little more difficult to envision, although certainly not impossible. If the Utes are to become a premier program in the Pac-12 and in the country, they will need visionary and creative leadership. They will need to carve out some unique approaches and philosophies, and become very good at selling those, to get recruits to choose Utah over more historically prestigious programs.

If I was the Utah athletic director, I would overpay, drastically if necessary, to bring in a big-name coach with heavy ties to the NFL and mass charisma for recruiting. The coach’s primary job would be to convince top recruits that they can come to Utah and play right away in the Pac-12 and that he can get them into the NFL. I would then work with the head coach to put together a supporting staff, also with heavy NFL ties, which can convincingly help spread and enhance the playing time and NFL messages to recruits.

In college football, as opposed to basketball, players almost always stay in the program for at least three years before going pro regardless of how good they are, so the Utes would still have time to develop talent and chemistry with this approach.

I would also invest heavily to be on the cutting-edge of analytical technology to learn and perfect the most statistically efficient and effective ways to play the game of football. Football is as much science as anything.

Whatever the Utes do, they must find creative ways to distinguish and identify their program if they want to be a perennial top-three program in the Pac-12. They cannot rely on “out-executing” their opponents or on trying to match other Pac-12 programs in mass appeal and attractiveness. It won’t work.

In short, there are big obstacles and much work to be done for both the Utes and Cougars, but there are also reasons for hope.

So, college football fans in the state of Utah, while you should be able to rationally acknowledge where your programs are on the food chain of national relevancy, you should not give up hope, stop watching, or stop caring.

And remember one other point from last week’s column, expressed in the very first paragraph: “College football is about more than just football.” Deep down I think we all know that when we attend or watch a game, ultimately the time spent enjoying the company of our children, other family members or friends, is far more important than how many people in New York or Los Angeles care about our teams.

At least that’s my experience.

In hindsight

The Ruckus went 7-1 in the crystal ball predictions for last week, bringing its two-week total to 14-3. The Jazz’s win over the Lakers on the road was the one failed prediction.

The Jazz, winners of three straight, are starting to ruin everything for themselves. They now have just the seventh-worst record in the league and are gaining on Cleveland, New York, Detroit, Charlotte and New Orleans.

It may already be time to start looking at alternative plans for the Jazz’s title-contending rebuilding project. Getting a top-three pick in the next draft looked like the surest way to go, but that seems less and less likely by the week.

Which fan is going to start the LebronToUtah.com website?

The BYU men’s basketball team suffered a horrible loss to Pacific on Thursday, following which everybody claimed the Cougars’ hopes for an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament were finished. Two days later BYU beat Saint Mary’s on the road, after which everybody claimed the Cougars’ hopes were resurrected.

Ah, the world of 24/7 sports coverage.

As of Feb. 17, ESPN’s Bracketology expert, Joe Lunardi, had the Cougars among the “First Four Out” of the NCAA Tournament.

The Utes did what they were supposed to do in beating USC and losing to UCLA on the road, and are solidly in the middle group of the Pac-12, at No. 7. They do not seem to be getting any consideration for an at-large bid to the tournament at this point and it is highly unlikely the Pac-12 will get more than six teams in, as is currently projected by ESPN.

Elsewhere in the state, BYU’s women’s basketball team stayed hot last week by blowing out Portland at home and then upsetting No. 20 Gonzaga on the road. The Cougars are now projected as a No. 12 seed in the NCAA Tournament by ESPN.

The Utah State men’s team is No. 8 in the Mountain West Conference after beating Colorado State on the road and then losing to UNLV at home. Outside of San Diego State, the Mountain West is having a pretty disappointing season as a whole.

In high school basketball, the biggest development was Lone Peak’s loss to Pleasant Grove — just the Knights’ second region loss in three years.

BYU’s highly-ranked men’s volleyball squad scored two impressive victories last week, winning at Pacific and at No. 8 Stanford.

Trophies:

Local team of the week: Utah Jazz.

The Jazz followed up their upset of the Heat with back-to-back victories last week over the Lakers and Sixers.

Local athlete of the week: Alec Burks, Utah Jazz.

Trey Burke may have teamed with former Weber State Wildcat Damian Lillard to win the Skills competition during All-Star weekend, but it was Alec Burks that led the Jazz on the court last week.

In the two wins, Burks combined for 50 points on 14-of-21 shooting and led the Jazz in plus/minus in both games with a +25 and + 11. Maybe he should play a little more.

Local sports moment of the week: The other Matty Ice hits two clutch free throws for BYU to beat St. Mary’s.

Matt Ryan, the quarterback of the Atlanta Falcons, may have earned the nickname “Matty Ice” with his penchant for game-winning drives, but Saturday night it was BYU’s Matt Carlino who played the part. With six seconds left and BYU up just one, Carlino went to the foul line and knocked down two clutch free throws to seal a big win for the Cougars.

Local notable stat of the week: The Jazz’s bench.

In both games last week, every player off the bench for the Jazz had a positive plus/minus, including Alec Burks and Enes Kanter. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: The Jazz have five players that should be playing 36 minutes per game, period. Those players are: Derrick Favors, Gordon Hayward, Burke, Burks and Kanter. What’s the excuse now, Jazz management? You can’t blame it on performance.

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

Rating: 2 – nothing to write home about.

Eye on the Prize: What’s on the line this week.

The Jazz have three games, taking on Brooklyn and Minnesota at home and Portland on the road. There are decent storylines in all three games for Jazz fans: the return of Deron Williams to Utah, the chance to see local legend Damian Lillard, and an opportunity to get revenge against the pesky Timberwolves after two blowout losses to them.

BYU welcomes Gonzaga to the Marriott Center on Thursday and then Portland on Saturday. Would anyone be surprised if this Cougar team beat a ranked Gonzaga team and then lost to Portland? If the Cougs win their last three games and then make it to the championship game of the WCC Tournament, they’ll be in the dance.

While BYU has just three regular season games left, the Utes still have five. The good news for Utah is that three of the five are at home. The bad news is that the remaining five games are against five of the top six teams in the Pac-12. The Utes probably need to win four of the five, with Arizona being one of the four, and win at least two conference tournament games to make the NCAA Tournament. This week the two Pac-12 Arizona teams visit the Huntsman Center.

Crystal ball: Predictions for the week.

1. Jazz: 1-2

2. Cougar men: 1-1

3. Ute men: 1-1

4. Aggie men: 1-1

Poll question of the week: What are your thoughts?

Which local college football program is currently in the best position to establish long-term national relevancy and success on the field — BYU, Utah or Utah State? See the column on the left to vote.

Parting thought: I hate goodbyes.

In honor of Deron Williams returning to Utah this week, here’s a link to a recent video of the top 10 plays of his career. Spoiler alert: Most are with the Jazz.

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

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