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Utah’s Kyle Whittingham on Texas-Oklahoma SEC realignment: ‘It’s just the tip of the iceberg’

Whittingham and the Utes were at the center of Division I realignment in 2010, when they went from the Mountain West to the Pac-12.

(Marcio Jose Sanchez | AP) Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham answers questions during the Pac-12 Conference NCAA college football Media Day Tuesday, July 27, 2021, in Los Angeles.

Los Angeles, Calif. • The last time there was a significant shift in the complexion of Division I conferences more than a decade ago, the University of Utah emerged as one of the big winners of the process.

When Colorado left the Big 12 for a Pac-10 invite in early June 2010, the league sought a 12th team, eventually calling on Utah.

With Texas and Oklahoma declaring their intent to leave the Big 12 and join the SEC this week, more significant conference movement is on the horizon. Nobody quite knows what the fallout will look like, but Kyle Whittingham, whose football program was a central figure in the last round of realignment, has some thoughts on the matter.

“It’s the tip of the iceberg,” the longtime Utes head coach told The Salt Lake Tribune Tuesday at Pac-12 media day at The W Hollywood. “I think there’s a seismic shift that’s going to take place in college football and it’ll never be the same down the road once all this change takes place. Right now, everyone’s trying to scramble to get themselves positioned for, financially first of all, and relevance.”

In the week since news leaked in the middle of SEC media days that Texas and Oklahoma intended to leave the Big 12, there has been much debate over what the Pac-12 might look like once the dust settles. Will the Pac-12 should hold firm with its 12 members? Should it be an aggressor and poach some of the remaining Big 12 members? Would, could, or should another conference poach Pac-12 members?

For what it’s worth, Utah has been mentioned little, if at all, across regional and national media in terms of potential realignment fallout.

Speaking to reporters Tuesday morning to open Pac-12 media day, new commissioner George Kliavkoff offered his belief that Texas and Oklahoma going from the Big 12 to the SEC only strengthens the Pac-12′s position.

Kliavkoff played both ends on Tuesday, saying he does not believe expansion is required to remain competitive in this climate, but also noting that the Pac-12 will consider all of its options as they present themselves. That came after Kliavkoff said the league had fielded “significant inbound interest from many schools” in the middle of the ongoing Texas-Oklahoma situation.

More change is coming beyond what began transpiring last week between the Big 12 and SEC. It is simply a matter at this point of how, who and when.

“I don’t think college football will ever be the same going forward as we know it,” Whittingham said. “The whole dynamic of it’s going to change.”

Whittingham believes 16-team college football playoff is imminent

Whittingham has long been a proponent of expanding the College Football Playoff.

The current four-team format, in place since the event’s inception in 2014, is likely to give way to a 12-team format later this decade, but Whittingham doesn’t believe it will stop there.

“I think the Playoff will go to 16, I don’t think there’s any way around that,” Whittingham said. “There’s too much money being left on the table, bottom line. The final arrangement is going to be what is financially best. That’s what’s going to happen.”

While a 16-team format is not currently on the table, moving to 12 teams would give the Pac-12 greater ability to contend for a national championship. The four highest-ranked conference champions would be the top-four seed and receive a first-round bye, while seeds 5 through 12 would play each other in the first round.

In theory, a Pac-12 champion might not always grab a top-four seed, but barring something unfathomable, the Pac-12 champion would be inside the top 12. In a good year, multiple Pac-12 teams would be fighting for spots in the top 12.

Under the four-team format, the conference has been mostly a non-factor. In 2014, Oregon won a CFP semifinal before falling to Ohio State in the championship game. Washington got rolled in a 2016 semifinal, and that has been the extent of the Pac-12′s participation on college football’s biggest stage. Two programs, and none in the last five seasons.

“That’s what we all want in this league, and one of the reasons I think that hasn’t happened is because the league has been so deep, so competitive,” Whittingham said. “There’s no gimmie weeks; every week you have to bring your ‘A’ game. That’s made sort of a cannibalization situation, but that’s no excuse. We have to be better, and we’re not hiding from that. We have to have more of a presence in the Playoff than we’ve had. We’ve had very little presence of late, so that’s a challenge for us. It has to happen.”

Added Kliavkoff: “I want to be 100% clear. Going forward, the Pac-12 conference will make all of our football-related decisions with the combined goals of optimizing CFP invitations and winning national championships. This is a decision fully supported by all 12 of our athletic directors.”

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