Big fish, little fish

Utah's leap to the Pac-10 has been the subject of much discussion lately, and it was again during the league's annual football media day Thursday in the Rose Bowl (see related story).

The acceptance of a Pac-10 invitation was a no-brainer for the Utes, of course. Just like that, they have been magically welcomed into the exclusive BCS club.

It means millions more in revenue. It means increased TV and recruiting exposure. It means an opportunity to measure Ute teams against the nation's elite on a regular basis. It means an easier road to the national title, at least in theory.

But will it be more fun? Will membership in what will become the Pac-12 be as exciting and hopeful each year as membership in the Mountain West Conference or the Western Athletic Conference? In other words, is it better to be a big fish in a small pond or a small fish in a big pond? Is it better to be a middle-tier program in the Pac-12 and an occasional contender for the conference title, or a perennial contender in the MWC?

Realistically, life in the Pac-12 will mean fewer wins, fewer conference titles and fewer bowl trips. Utah's success against the Pac-10 has been a recent phenomenon (12-11 since 1994); historically, they are 52-90-3 against teams currently in the Pac-10 (and 24-30-3 against future member Colorado).

Similarly, BYU is 33-57-1 against current Pac-10 teams (3-8-1 against Colorado) and has a losing record against every Pac-10 team except Washington State (2-1) and Cal (2-1).

In reality, Pac-10 membership will actually make it more difficult for Utah to get to a BCS bowl, not easier.

Think about it: The Utes are a BCS school. As already mentioned, that likely means fewer wins and conference titles, which decreases the odds of an invitation to a BCS bowl, not to mention the national championship.

It might actually be easier to be one of the country's BCS busters, a team trying to get inside from the outside. They have a better chance of running the table with an easier schedule. Instead of facing six or seven difficult opponents each season, they face about three. If you're working the system — a system that is vastly flawed, as we all know — that's a proven path to travel.

That's how Utah cracked the BCS — twice. That's how TCU, Hawaii and Boise State earned BCS bowl invitations. That's how BYU won the national championship in 1984. They all sneaked into the national championship picture through a loophole left open for those teams that don't belong to the elite conferences.

Now the Utes have joined the in-crowd, and that means taking a more legitimate and difficult road to the national championship.

If you want to see what happens when a successful outsider is invited to join an elite conference, look what happened to Arizona State and Arizona. Dominant forces in the old Western Athletic Conference, they left the league to join the Pac-10 in 1978. They've rarely been heard from since.

It's the Tale of Two Programs. Arizona State won seven of nine WAC championships from 1969 to 1977. The Sun Devils made six bowl appearances and won five of them. In the 32 years since they joined the Pac-10, ASU has won just three Pac-10 championships (one was shared) — neatly spaced, about 10 years apart — and played in just two Rose Bowls. During those three decades, the Sun Devils appeared in just 14 bowl games, period — and most of them were the Sun Bowl, Holiday Bowl, Hawaii Bowl and other mid-level bowls.

Arizona, stuck in ASU's shadow, won two WAC titles and was always one of the league's top teams. Since joining the Pac-10, the Wildcats have won only one conference championship — a tie in 1993 – and have never qualified for the Rose Bowl. They have appeared in 13 bowl games during those 32 years.

Without other options, BYU and Utah remained in the WAC, which eventually morphed into the Mountain West, and both have been perennial top 20 teams and bowl invitees. BYU has won 23 WAC/MWC championships; Utah has won seven of them, plus nine consecutive bowl games.

They've been able to do great things right where they are. You wonder if they should be careful what they wish for.