As fall camp looms ahead of what could be a monumental season at the University of Utah, focus outside the Eccles Football Center is squarely on the latest round of conference realignment.
There are lots of questions, even more hypotheticals flying all over the national landscape. Some of those pertain to the Utes and the Pac-12, so we’re going to start this week’s mailbag right there.
Do you have a question for Utes beat reporter Josh Newman? Send it to him via a tweet, direct message him on Twitter, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave it in the comments section at the end of this article and he will answer them in his weekly mailbag.
Q: “There’s not a lot of talk of the top teams from the Pac-12 grabbing the top teams from the Big 12, merging and shedding the dead weight. Utah and BYU orchestrated this before creating the Mountain West, why not do it again and make a far better conference?” - @HatchDave
A: First, a history lesson, which I’m sure most locals of a certain age are very aware of.
After the WAC expanded to 16 teams and divided itself into four four-team quadrants in the late 1990s, Utah and BYU, two charter members of the league dating back to 1962, proposed two eight-team divisions. That proposal was met with pushback, enough so that Utah, BYU, Air Force, Colorado State, and Wyoming agreed to leave the WAC and form a new conference. They invited WAC members New Mexico, San Diego State and UNLV, and the Mountain West was born with eight schools.
Anyway, you’re not hearing a lot about the Pac-12 raiding the Big 12 because the two biggest alphas in the proverbial room, UCLA and USC, are gone, and they took the country’s second-biggest television market with it. Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff is not operating from a position of power at the moment, so asking him to raid the Big 12 is a non-starter. Kliavkoff had that opportunity a year ago when the Big 12 lost Oklahoma and Texas. He passed in favor of The Alliance, which is, for all intents and purposes, finished.
Any sort of merger/poaching between the Pac-12 and Big 12 is not in the cards. At least, not yet. At least, not until the Pac-12 has a better idea of its worth once the 30-day exclusive negotiating window with ESPN and FOX closes. There is a very clear, very obvious lull right now in all of the realignment action.
Hypothetically, would merging members of the Pac-12 and Big 12 make a better conference than what the Pac-12 was with UCLA and USC? I’m not convinced that’s the case. The Pac-12 lost two flagship members, not to mention its two highest-profile brands in Trojans football and Bruins basketball.
Let’s say you take all 10 remaining members because, remember, those 10 have pledged to stick together (for now), and add any two Big 12 members you want. No two Big 12 members are equaling what you lost in UCLA and USC.
If the Pac-12 survives this realignment circus, it will be different, but I have a hard time believing it will be better.
Q: “Cam Rising, how close did the QB play to his ceiling in 2021? Can (offensive coordinator) Andy Ludwig get more out of him? May need that to make a leap from Pac-12 champ to CFP candidate.” - @johncanzanobft
A: No, Rising did not hit his ceiling last fall. Yes, I think Ludwig can get more out of the fifth-year junior.
This season will be the fourth that Rising and Ludwig have worked together. That’s a lot of time, a lot of trust, a lot of rapport. Also, this is the first offseason where the job belongs to Rising. No injury rehab, no QB competition, no sharing reps. It cannot be overstated how huge that is.
How good is Rising? On a number of occasions last season when discussing his quarterback, Kyle Whittingham referenced Rising’s QBR. To Whittingham, QBR is the best measure of the position. Rising’s QBR of 84.2 was No. 1 in the Pac-12 and No. 6 nationally among FBS quarterbacks.
From an eye-test perspective, Rising was very good last season, but he wasn’t asked to do a ton most weeks with Utah running the ball 58% of the time across 14 games. Yes, there were games where Rising was slinging it (at USC, at Oregon State, vs. Ohio State before the concussion), but other games, it was run, run, run.
I don’t think any careful observer of the sport is putting Rising in the elite category next to CJ Stroud, Bryce Young, and probably Caleb Williams, but Rising is absolutely in that next tier with guys like Sam Hartman, Tyler Van Dyke, and Grayson McCall.
To the esteemed Mr. Canzano’s point, Rising’s talent and potential to take a tangible step forward this fall makes him a separator, the kind of player that can get Utah to a College Football Playoff. The Utes are of course going to run the ball a ton, but if we’re really going to talk about the CFP, Rising is eventually going to have to make plays, late in games, in high-leverage spots. That’s one thing, in fairness, Rising was not faced with last season, a 2-minute drill in the fourth quarter with the Utes trailing.
Of course, everyone has to stay healthy and things have to break right around the Utes, but Rising has the goods where Utah can make bigger noise this season than it did last season.
Q: “Really burned out by realignment talk, so I was thinking something a little less important. Is there any info on whether the Utes might see a redesign with uniforms? Fans have been pining for a more simple, clean look for ages. But hey, the Jazz thought clean and simple was the way to go. Be careful what you wish for I suppose.” - @kylemmorris
A: I have not heard anything having to do with a uniform redesign, but I also haven’t asked anyone inside the athletic department anything having to do with uniforms, apparel, or its current Under Armour deal, in probably two years, back when UA was trying to get rid of UCLA and Cal.
Could Utah use a uniform redesign? I guess? Maybe? Back when I was a kid, probably through my early 20s, I was a real super-duper uniform geek. Not so much anymore.
That said, I don’t really care for Utah’s throwback editions with the cursive numbers. I like the straight red uniforms. I like the straight black uniforms. I loved the gray U.S.S. Salt Lake City uniforms from last season. I don’t care for any version of the white uniforms at all. They just don’t do it for me.
If Utah were to leave Under Armour when its current deal expires, I suspect you would see some noticeable uniform changes, but that is a long way off. The current Utah-UA deal goes through 2027 and, if I’m reading the contract correctly, UA has the right of first refusal on an extension, and Utah can’t start negotiating with a different apparel company until Nov. 2026.
Q: “Hypothetically, if Utah were to meet or exceed preseason projections and make the CFP, maybe even win a game and advance to the championship game and at least keep it competitive, how do you think that could impact potential realignment scenarios for the Utes, if at all?” - @RashDecisionXL
A: The potential for this to be the case I think is a long-term topic, not a short-term one.
What I mean is, I don’t think a CFP run in 2022 would have much, if any bearing on this current trip on the realignment rollercoaster, but there’s going to be more realignment craziness in the future. We’ll get through these latest media rights negotiations. Things, whatever they are, will settle down, but there will be more behind what’s happening now.
That said, if you take the Rose Bowl appearance, add a CFP appearance and take into account this sustained period of success dating back to 2018, does Utah find itself in a more favorable realignment position down the road?
Honestly, tough to say. Furthermore, it’s tough to gauge much of anything beyond what is right in front of us, and even that much is hard to decipher, at least until Notre Dame decides what it wants to do.
For what it’s worth, every indication given to me in the last two weeks is that Utah believes it is in a fine position realignment-wise, certainly better than other Pac-12 schools. I find it hard to believe that this particular Utah athletic director is going to allow his athletic department to be left on the outside looking in.
Q: “If Utah did, by happenstance, move to the Big 12 or do some sort of ACC merger, would the basketball team go to the NCAA Tournament ever again?” - @ColoUte
A: I’ve gotten this a bunch over the last week.
Utah has had enough trouble navigating the Pac-12, especially over the last three seasons. If Utah was to find itself in the Big 12, you’re talking about potentially having to play Kansas, Baylor, Texas Tech, TCU and West Virginia every year. I toss in the Mountaineers because, when they’re good, playing in Morgantown is a tough task, and the Utes would be doing that after a cross-country flight.
Speaking of cross-country flights, yeah, we know what the ACC is. I can’t imagine what the scheduling would look like for basketball, but it would be rugged.
In times like this when realignment is happening, or is at least imminent, nobody really cares about basketball. Football, and the revenue generated by it, drives decision-making, while basketball could sometimes be considered collateral damage.
If we go by the shape Utah men’s basketball is currently in, coming off 20 losses with real questions as to what next season might look like, the Utes becoming Big 12 members, or the Pac-12 merging with the Big 12, or the Pac-12 creating a partnership with the ACC would not be doing the program any favors.
Q: “The Joel Klatt heel turn on realignment was one of the more surprising heel turns of the last several years. What are some of your favorite heel turns in sports history?” - @RunninHoops
A: On July 5, Klatt, a college football analyst for FOX, and in my opinion the best color analyst in the sport, fired off a tweet regarding realignment that left fans rolling their eyes. At a minimum it came off tone-deaf.
Klatt’s heel turn as a network-employee stooge was disappointing, no doubt, but so were some other heel turns that come to mind immediately.
Hulk Hogan: After 15 years of being the face of the WWF as a “good guy,” went heel as a member of the WCW in 1996. Hulkamaniacs all over the world wept.
Johnny Damon: Signed with the New York Yankees in December 2005 for $52 million over four years. Fourteen months earlier, Damon helped lead the Boston Red Sox to their first World Series title since 1918. Along the way, he hit two home runs, including a second-inning grand slam, in Game 7 of the ALCS at Yankee Stadium, a 10-3 Sox win after they trailed in the series, 3-0.
Caleb Lohner: Wasatch Academy star forward signed with the University of Utah, asked out of his National Letter of Intent, then signed with BYU………I’M KIDDING!!!
Q: “What’s the best way, as a Utah fan, to deal with Kansas State and Iowa State fans that hate you because they don’t want the team you cheer for in their conference?” - @kwlundeberg
A: Let me check my notes here before offering any advice.
Kansas State has won the Big 12 championship game once, in 2003, the program’s only outright conference championship since winning the Big Six in 1934. The school’s endowment is roughly $524 million, more than 50% less than that of the University of Utah.
Iowa State has never won the Big 12, never played in a Big 12 championship game, and has never won an outright conference title in football. It did, however, share the Missouri Valley Intercollegiate Athletic Association title in 1911 (2-0-1) and 1912 (2-0).
The way for Utah fans to deal with these two fan bases is to ignore them or make fun of them. Option B could spice things up, but option A is probably your best bet.
Editor’s note • This story is available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting local journalism.