Somebody once said truth hurts but delusion harms.
Well … let’s go ahead and sweep away those delusions as they relate to the state of college football in Utah — what it is and maybe what it never was.
One of the hard lessons learned and relearned from the 2013 season is that teams and programs around here aren’t anywhere near as relevant or near to being relevant — read: good — as administrators, coaches, players, fans and maybe some media members thought they were or could be.
Reality has shoved that into the consciousness of anybody who’s paying attention.
Utah’s slide into the Pac-12, where it has won eight of 26 games in three sorry seasons, has been about as revelatory as any bit of evidence could be as it pertains to what the Utes really are and what they once were. All those wins gathered in the Mountain West, looking back, don’t hold up much under the harsh light of big-league competition.
Remember when so many of us thought that undefeated 2008 Utah team deserved a No. 1 national ranking? We all kind of doubt that now, right? Yeah, it beat Alabama in the Sugar Bowl in as impressive a win as any team from this state has ever achieved. But it was a single big-time victory, not substantial proof that those Utes were the country’s best, most deserving team.
If that Utah team had been subjected to the weekly grind that this year’s Utes have faced in the Pac-12, or even what the major-conference teams of 2008 faced, would it have been unbeaten or anything close to that?
Winning, in and of itself, isn’t enough of a test. It’s the caliber of opponents a team beats that demonstrates its worthiness. And, man, that hurts to write because this corner has been as critical as any about the BCS and its legacy of discriminating between teams and leagues based on computer formulas and opinion polls. But that’s what Utah’s dismal foray into the Pac-12 has taught anyone with eyes to see and ears to hear.
A win is not a win is not a win.
BYU has built its reputation on regularly beating lesser teams — with an occasional victory over a top-drawer outfit. And that’s an illusion and a delusion that built a 65,000-seat stadium, a rabid fan following and an exclusive TV contract with ESPN.
But to suggest that BYU is an authentic top national football power is to frost over the truth. It is not. The Cougars have won a lot of games through the years, and even some memorable ones, periodically. They’ve had glossy records at times, and some high rankings. But to believe they would hold — or would have held — up favorably under the battering of strong competition found weekly in the nation’s toughest conferences is foolhardy. It really is a delusion.
For a lot of fans, that’s hard to digest. But that difficulty makes it no less true.
Some BYU fans enjoy giving Utah fans the business over the Utes’ current 1-7 season in Pac-12 play.
But what they should know in their minds and hearts is that this year’s Cougars would have suffered a similar fate — were they to play the same schedule.
BYU had a couple of nice wins in independence, but look at its four losses — against Virginia, Utah, Wisconsin and Notre Dame. Authentic legitimacy was lost alongside those games.
Put the 7-4 Cougars and 4-7 Utes back in the Mountain West and think about what those teams might have accomplished there, what their records would have been. Even with their offensive troubles, they likely would have been at or near the top. Fresno State is tough, but Utah State, if it beats Wyoming on Saturday, will be in that league’s championship game. Both Utah and BYU beat the Aggies.
If the Cougars and Utes had still been in the Mountain West, the illusion and delusion would have continued — with a lot of low-calorie and empty wins, with pretty records that would have masked their deficiencies and made a lot of people happy.
A counter argument, at least looking in the rearview, is that Utah and BYU have had in their programs through the years a lot of terrific players, some of whom have gone on to play and win in the NFL. The point here isn’t that those teams were dog meat, bereft of talent. It’s just that other talent-rich programs, on a week-to-week basis, had to face more arduous tests, and therefore have nearly universally been more deserving.
So, we mix the past with the present here in coming to three conclusions: 1) college football in Utah isn’t all that great, 2) it probably never was as great as everyone around here wants to believe, and 3) it hasn’t fallen off as dramatically as it seems.
This year’s Cougars and Utes aren’t as good as some of the Cougar and Ute teams of the past. But it was this year’s competition that shined a bright light on that truth. Otherwise, they would have beaten up on a bunch of Colorado States and New Mexicos and UNLVs, sprinkling in convincing wins over Stanford and Texas, and never known the difference.
GORDON MONSON hosts "The Big Show" with Spence Checketts weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM/1280 and 960 AM The Zone. Twitter: @GordonMonson.
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