Kragthorpe: Utah has to keep playing BYU in football or else
While saying he's not promising the annual football rivalry with BYU will continue forever, Utah athletic director Chris Hill clarified, "I wouldn't want to panic anybody."
Embarrassment, having not known that "panic" is a transitive verb, and horror, because Hill panicked me.
Now that I think about it, he's the one who's panicking, period.
These teams absolutely have to play every season, and not just for my benefit. Utah-BYU football games drive sports interest in this state like no other event. If anything, I wish the Utes and Cougars could meet twice a year, as NFL divisional rivals do.
Hill's approach is well-intended. He wants to be able to book some attractive games without overloading the Utes' future nonconference schedules, as he told The Tribune's Lya Wodraska,
While I understand Hill's motivation for balancing the nonleague schedule "It's scary in the Pac-12," he said before the season this is an overreaction to life in the new conference.
What he described as an "awfully aggressive" 2011 schedule has treated Hill's program well enough that the Utes and their fill-in quarterback can finish 3-6 in conference play and qualify for a bowl game. Besides, what part of "54-10" did Utah not enjoy in Provo? As for Pittsburgh, which Hill said he never would have agreed to play if he knew the Utes would be joining the Pac-12, last weekend's opponent at Heinz Field apparently was not the Steelers, after all.
Utah's nonconference schedule ranks sixth among Pac-12 schools this season, as judged by the opponents' current Sagarin Ratings. And that's with the unexpected value of Montana State's ranking ahead of many Football Bowl Subdivision teams.
It's true that the grind of the Pac-12 schedule is demanding, particularly when the Utes' bye week came so early and injuries are testing their depth. But would the Utes really be overwhelmed by a nonconference run of BYU, a Big Sky Conference team and once in awhile a brand-name school?
That resembles Washington's 2011 schedule (Eastern Washington, Hawaii, at Nebraska), and the Huskies are thriving, only three years removed from an 0-12 record.
Coach Kyle Whittingham would like to play some opponents from states in the Utes' "recruiting footprint" translation: Texas and I'd welcome that as well. An occasional meeting with Texas A&M or Texas would be fun, and other intriguing possibilities exist.
My point is, those games can be mixed in here and there without sacrificing the rivalry or ruining a season.
Unless you're contending for the national championship, the reality of the Pac-12 is that overall records barely matter, beyond the 6-6 standard for bowl eligibility. It's OK to bite off a lot occasionally, such as seasons when Utah has five conference games at home, because the rewards outweigh the risks.
Hill's hallmark as an athletic director is giving his programs a chance to succeed, with an ability to see the big picture, and he deserves tremendous credit for that vision. That's why he's potentially willing to live with part of his legacy being the interruption of one of college football's greatest rivalries.
There are those who contend everybody needs a break from the rivalry, that reducing the frequency of games would make the competition more civil and help each side become less obsessed with the other in a healthy way.
Sorry, that's not going to happen unless one school quits playing altogether. BYU and Utah no longer belong to the same conference, but let's face it, every fan of one school judges the other guys every week, anyway. They might as well keep teeing it up once a year on the same field, as always.
After all he's done, Chris Hill can't be the one to undo this.
Nonconference schedules for Pac-12 teams, in order of difficulty (based on average Sagarin Ratings of opponents):
1. UCLA • at Houston, San Jose State, Texas (76.61)
2. Oregon State • Sacramento State, at Wisconsin, BYU (75.24)
3. Oregon • LSU*, Nevada, Missouri State (72.28)
4. Arizona • Northern Arizona, at Oklahoma State, La.-Lafayette (70.87)
5. Arizona State • UC Davis, Missouri, at Illinois (70.75)
6. Utah • Montana State, at BYU, at Pittsburgh (69.43)
7. Washington • Eastern Washington, Hawaii, at Nebraska (68.89)
8. Stanford • San Jose State, at Duke, Notre Dame (68.30)
9. Colorado • at Hawaii, California**, Colorado State*, at Ohio St. (67.82)
10. USC • Minnesota, Syracuse, at Notre Dame (67.19)
11. California • Fresno State, at Colorado**, Presbyterian (53.95)
12. Washington State • Idaho State, UNLV, at San Diego State (52.94)
* Neutral site. ** Previously scheduled nonconference game.
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