During their last three football seasons together in the Mountain West, Utah and Texas Christian staged a series of November games that helped determine bids to major bowls and brought ESPN’s “GameDay” crew to Salt Lake City and Fort Worth.
Only three years ago, No. 4-ranked TCU visited No. 6 Utah. The Utes and Horned Frogs seem far removed from those glorious days. If those teams met this week in their once-traditional time slot, would anybody even notice?
Utah is 4-4 overall, 1-4 in the Pac-12. TCU is 3-6, 1-5 in the Big 12. Considering a trip to Oregon looms for the Utes, it’s likely Utah and TCU will have produced a losing record in conference play in each of their combined five seasons since upgrading from the Mountain West.
Utah’s nine-year run of bowl appearances ended last season. TCU’s eight-year streak is sure to end this month. The Utes and Frogs have gone from battling in those high-profile games to finding comfort in the other’s troubles.
Without prompting, TCU coach Gary Patterson recently cited Utah’s struggles as evidence of the challenge his program faces. As only he could describe TCU’s transition, Patterson said, “If you didn’t pay attention to what you were getting into before you got into it, then you’re in a lot of trouble.”
Asked about the Frogs’ plight, Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said, “They’re just going through some of the same growing pains that we are.”
The Utes stand 8-15 in league games in their third Pac-12 season; the Frogs are 5-10 in their second Big 12 season. That’s a collective 13-25 record for teams that went 41-1 against the other seven MW schools from 2008-10, prior to Utah’s departure.
So the Utes and Frogs are not who we thought they were. Now that the schools are struggling in power conferences, the natural response is to devalue their former accomplishments. As Patterson said, “We’re just getting started … You’re either going to prove them right or you’re going to prove them wrong.”
Some would say that even the best Utah and TCU teams couldn’t have competed favorably in the Pac-12 or Big 12. That certainly is worth arguing. It is stunning to review the lineup of the 2008 Utah team that beat TCU 13-10 and upset Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. The 2010 TCU team that blitzed Utah 47-7 and topped Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl also was loaded.
The ’08 Utes featured nine starters who are now in the NFL or spent significant time in the league, notably impact defensive players Sean Smith, Paul Kruger and Koa Misi. Six reserves from that team also made NFL rosters, and that’s not even counting college stars such as quarterback Brian Johnson and kicker Louie Sakoda.
The ’10 Frogs listed 10 future pros, including quarterback Andy Dalton, receiver Jeremy Kerley and linebacker Tank Carder.
It is remarkable that Utah and TCU could recruit and develop those elite athletes, while competing at a non-BCS level. When it comes to producing current NFL players, Utah ranks in the top half of the Pac-12. So why are the Utes not doing better in the conference?
Whittingham believes his top-tier players match up well with Utah’s opponents, but that’s not true of all 85 scholarship athletes. “There’s the core in between that really is the difference-maker,” he said.
Quarterbacking issues also help explain the struggles of Utah and TCU. The Utes lost starter Jordan Wynn each of the previous two years and used three QBs in 2012. This year, Travis Wilson’s hand injury contributed to recent losses to Arizona and USC. The Frogs have played most of two seasons without 2011 starter Casey Pachall, due to injury and off-field issues.
Both teams also are losing close games, including TCU’s 30-27 overtime loss to West Virginia last Saturday. Such drama rarely occurred in those final Mountain West years, when these teams were winning easily.
Since the Utes’ initial Pac-12 season, Whittingham said, “There’s no question that we have gotten better.”
The problem is there’s no way of stopping their opponents from doing the same.
Welcome to the big time
Conference records for Utah and TCU in the Mountain West and the Pac-12/Big 12 over the past six seasons:
Year Conference Record
2008 MW 8-0
2009 MW 6-2
2010 MW 7-1
2011 Pac-12 4-5
2012 Pac-12 3-6
2013 Pac-12 1-4
2008 MW 7-1
2009 MW 8-0
2010 MW 8-0
2011 MW 7-0
2012 Big 12 4-5
2013 Big 12 1-5