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USC quarterback Carson Palmer is chased by Utah's CR Dwinell as Utah beat USC 10-7 in the Las Vegas Bowl on Dec. 25, 2001.

SALT LAKE CITY — The joke making the rounds about Utah joining in the Pac-10 is that the Utes will still play BYU every year — in the Las Vegas Bowl, which matches the fifth-place team from the Pac-10 against the Mountain West winner.


On the other hand, looking at the Pac-10 as currently constituted, you have to ask: Who in this crowd couldn't the Utes beat?

It's not like they're entering the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

With USC under NCAA sanctions, adjusting to a new coach and coming off a bad season, there is no unbeatable team. Utah may not be favored, but that's not to say it couldn't contend immediately. I don't know whether that's an indictment on the Pac-10 or an endorsement for the Utes, who aren't even supposed to win the Mountain West this year. Either way, you have to hand them this: Their timing is stupendous. They're entering the Pac-10 just when the league is looking downright average.

Timing hasn't always been the Utes' forte. For years, the snobby West Coast conference didn't even like to fly into Utah's time zone, much less let the Utes into the league. You had your big-time operation, and you had your sagebrush league. Almost always the Pac-10 won.

Utah's all-time record against the Pac-10 is 52-90-3. Southern Cal? The Utes are 3-6 all-time. UCLA? One-and-eight. Stanford? Two-and-three. Arizona State? Six-and-16. Washington? Zero for six. Oregon? Eight-and-18.

The only Pac-10 team Utah has a winning record against is Arizona (19-15-2), and most of that dates back to when the Wildcats were in the WAC.

Not long ago, the Utes had only a faint chance against any of the Pac-10 teams. In 2000, three years before Urban Meyer's arrival, the Utes lost games on consecutive Saturdays to Arizona, California and Washington State. West was West, and Far West was Far West, and never the twain should meet — except for an occasional beating just to remind the Utes of their station. But since 2003, they are 7-3 against the Pac-10.

Though Utah won games against the Pac-10 before 2003, that didn't mean it believed. That started to change on Christmas Day, 2001. USC was stuck in a Las Vegas Bowl game it didn't want to attend, against a Utah team that did. The Utes ground out a 10-6 victory.

On the field afterward, there was a sense among coaches, players and fans that the Utes had crossed a threshold. But just by a toe. Though they did lose to Arizona the next year on a debatable call, their foot was in the door. They went on to win the next four games against Pac-10 schools.

Soon the bigger conference began noticing the girl next door was growing up.

As well as the Utes have done in recent years — winning two BCS bowls — the truth is, they were obviously a backup plan. Although the talk last winter surrounding Pac-10 expansion mainly included Utah and Colorado, things took a sharp turn when last week's expansion mania descended. The sun-and-surf league made a run at wooing six teams from the Big 12.

Utah, temporarily, had been stood up.

But when only Colorado accepted an invitation, there stood Utah in the corner, where it had always been, hoping to be asked to join. When the Pac-10 approached, the Utes said, "Let me check my schedu—YESSSSSSSSSS!"

Now that they've been invited, they don't care how it came or where they were on the priority list. Besides, Plan B's work all the time. John Travolta turned down the lead in "Forrest Gump," and Tom Hanks came to own it. Cary Grant spurned an offer to become James Bond, and Sean Connery made the role his. Can you imagine anyone other than Dustin Hoffman in "The Graduate"? The lead was originally supposed to go to Robert Redford.

So backup plans can turn out nicely.

The intriguing thing for the Utes isn't just getting in; it's that they could compete immediately, no warm-up required. Arizona and Arizona State have seldom shone, despite being in the Pac-10 since 1978. Between them, they've won one Rose Bowl. But the first two years they were in the conference, USC was a monster, going 23-1-1 and winning a national championship.

No such monster exists now.

Oregon is good, but that's about it, and its quarterback just got kicked off the team.

Since 1999, Utah has defeated every Pac-10 school except the ones it hasn't played (Washington, Stanford and Arizona State). Considering Washington went 4-5 last year in the conference, ASU 2-7 and Stanford 6-3, it's safe to say nobody's unbeatable.

Bowl jokes aside, maybe the only stop Ute fans make in Vegas from now on will be to gas up on the way to the West Coast.

e-mail: rock@desnews.com