Kragthorpe: Utah football forecast more fuzzy than rosy
The day in June when the University of Utah was invited to join the Pac-12 Conference, Rose Bowl organizers delivered a symbolic bouquet of flowers to the school's president.
Five months later, still belonging to the Mountain West Conference, the Utes may have found themselves as close to a Rose Bowl bid as they will come for a while.
That's an irony of the Utes' conference affiliation. While the Pac-12 champion is ticketed to the Rose Bowl, getting there the traditional way may be more difficult for Utah than via the avenue that was available in 2010.
But who knows? Nobody can say for sure how Utah will rank in this league. The Utes will be competitive from the start, but how soon that translates to winning a Pac-12 South football title and the conference championship game is subject to considerable debate or guessing.
While those roses were nice, individually wrapped cheese slices from the sponsor of the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl may have been more appropriate. The bonus of Pac-12 membership is that the secondary bowl affiliations are more attractive than the Mountain West's. Of course, Las Vegas is a reasonable destination for Utah in 2011, once again.
This much is certain: The Utes could not have asked for a better Rose Bowl chance than the one they had in November.
Utah was unbeaten, playing Texas Christian at Rice-Eccles Stadium. The Utes lost badly. TCU went on to win the Rose Bowl, having qualified via the Bowl Championship Series provision that kicked in when the Rose Bowl lost Oregon to the national championship game.
The biggest consolation of the Utes' new affiliation is they will not face anybody as good as that TCU team in 2011. In another twist, this first season in the Pac-12 may offer Utah its best Rose Bowl shot of the next few years.
That's because USC is ineligible for the Pac-12 championship game, even if the Trojans are the South winners.
And the Utes miss Oregon and Stanford, the North's two best teams, in the league's scheduling rotation. That combination gives them as much chance as anybody to emerge from the South, and anything could happen in the title game.
What makes Utah's arrival in the Pac-12 so intriguing is that no football program previously made this jump into one of the six power conferences in the BCS era without that league needing to fill vacancies. The former Pac-10 chose to expand with Utah (and Colorado from the Big 12), as opposed to the Big East grabbing Louisville, Cincinnati and South Florida from Conference USA in 2005 after being raided by the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Louisville and Cincinnati have played in BCS games, which may be more of a commentary about the Big East than a precedent for Utah. And it is both heartening and sobering for the Utes to recognize that in the 13-year BCS era, eight other members of their new league (including Colorado) have appeared in the Rose Bowl or another BCS game.
That illustrates the depth and balance of the Pac-12, with programs rising and falling. In their past seven seasons as Mountain West members, the Utes played in two BCS games. Playing in two Rose Bowls or any other BCS games, as an at-large team in the next seven seasons would be a huge achievement.
Utah's football program is sort of a composite character of Arizona and Arizona State, when those schools left the Western Athletic Conference to join the Pac-10 in 1978. They've combined for two Rose Bowl bids (both for ASU) and no other BCS games.
Based on that information, this is my precise forecast for how long it will take Utah to play in two Rose Bowls: more than seven seasons and fewer than 33.