In the run-up to the 2022 college football season, who around here knew that the most compelling theater would be speculation over which conference Utah would be a member of in the seasons ahead.
That business was supposedly all tucked away more than a decade ago, when Larry Scott invited the Utes into the Pac-12, but then subsequently helped wreck that league’s future with a series of bad leadership decisions, mixed with the ultimate hammer shot of USC and UCLA bolting for bigger bucks elsewhere.
Where does that leave Utah now?
It leaves the Utes in danger. It leaves them exposed. It leaves them desperately trying to navigate icy waters with bergs drifting all around them.
What craft can they count on to keep them afloat? Do they stay aboard a ship with a gash in its hull or do they board a lifeboat and hope for the Carpathia to come along hours later and pull them from the cold, dark sea?
Decisions, decisions, the college football life is full of them.
The main problem for the Utes has nothing to do with the state or quality of their program. They are, it is, respected nationally, known for fielding tough, talented teams that are well coached and difficult to defeat. The school itself is also highly esteemed.
It is centered, instead, on the most fundamental of risky relational pratfalls: Trust.
Or, more specifically, a lack of trust.
In the greediest period of an already greedy endeavor, Utah has no one to trust but itself, or so it seems. The reason being, that’s what every other prominent college football school is doing — looking out for its own best interests. If those best interests torpedo the best interests of other schools then … sucks for them.
So the Utes must be careful here, otherwise they could be betrayed, left alone, left out in that cruel, cold ocean, which is to say, left out of the big money.
And if they are, none of their more fortunate former partners will cry for them. The Trojans don’t care. The Bruins don’t care. The Huskies don’t care. The Ducks don’t care.
If Utah chooses to stay with what believers want to call a united Pac-10 — let’s all laugh at that blind idealism — and then a few more valued league schools jump for more money somewhere else, where does that put them? Scrambling to join the Mountain West?
Should Utah align with Washington and Oregon and Arizona and Arizona State and Stanford and Cal and hope for good friendship, hope that the Pac can somehow replace USC and UCLA, either by adding schools like San Diego State and Fresno State or by standing pat and extending more hope for a decent TV deal with ESPN, or failing that, some other outfit, as they are?
Already there are reports, after comments made by Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren indicating that that hungry and well-positioned league may yet expand again, that Washington, Oregon, Stanford and Cal are being targeted. If they really are, the Utes can sing a requiem for their former conference.
That said, should Utah go ahead and trust the Pac’s ability or willingness to stay together or to raid, say, the Big 12 and find new partners there?
Or will it be the other way around, where the Big 12 cherry-picks a few of the other teams from the Pac, leaving whatever remains to lie dead in the road, rotting in the sun?
What if Oregon and Washington were to hitch up with the Big 12?
Would the Utes trust those schools as reliable partners, no matter what they say in public or private?
No. Hell no.
These are tenuous, dangerous and difficult times for Utah.
It’s every school for itself, and the Utes are fully aware, considering they bailed out of a far less-lucrative league when they left the MWC for the Pac-12. They know what they’re dealing with all around them because they know themselves. They know that they, too, would abandon all others to get into the Big Ten, which could be paying each of its members some $100 million annually in TV money.
That’s just good business even if it’s bad for those left behind.
And Utah does not want to be left behind.
It must keenly observe what’s going on, who’s lying, who’s liable to lie, and then pick a rescue boat to climb aboard. It has to discern whether the Pac will take a bite out of the Big 12 or whether the Big 12 will succeed in swallowing whatever it wants out of the Pac.
Meanwhile, it’s keeping a close eye on what the financials are coming out of the Pac’s current negotiations on a future TV deal with ESPN.
This is all where the drama gets hot, not just for Utah administrators, but also among reporters trying to discover what’s really going on, among social media warriors and fans arguing over which league — the Pac or the Big 12 — is best suited to not just thrive, but survive.
Who do the networks favor? That’s the real question. Which league has better prospects for drawing ratings? With a few tweaks here and there, where does the greater passion lie? Where can the money be made?
Statistics are cited to the left, claiming the Pac schools are superior, and to the right, saying when apples are compared to apples, oranges to oranges, the Big 12 outdistances the Pac. Truth is, those numbers can be leaned any which way anyone wants.
Some of the Big 12 markets are smaller in population than the Pac’s, but the quality of ball played, the care factor in the stands and in the TV dens tilts the equation the other way. Viewership stats can be weighed and weighted by which games were on which networks at which times and both manipulated and/or interpreted from there.
Some BYU fans, still torqued by the Utes leaving the Cougars behind when they were invited into the Pac-12 and now emboldened by BYU’s attachment to the Big 12, appear to be relishing the opportunity to tell Utah how their new conference is more stable, more rocksteady, more attractive, more profitable than the remains of the Pac.
And some Utah fans are holding out that the Pac is preferable to those backwater schools in the Big 12, and that the devouring could and should feast at the other end of the table.
Though mildly entertaining, none of that extraneous debate matters. To reiterate, here’s what does: What the networks think.
They are the undisputed kingmakers of college football, and they have the means and the inclination to find the truth in sorting through which schools, which leagues are most valuable. Who motivated the Big Ten to add USC and UCLA? Yeah, Fox did.
Money flowing in both directions did.
Where can the Utes make the most of it?
And, in figuring that out, can they make themselves desirable to the right league with the right TV deal?
The school craves the money. What Utah fans care about is even more basic — winning.
As much as the Ute program has advanced in recent years through solid organization, good coaching, strong support, it is, as Kyle Whittingham always says, recruiting that has added the horsepower to the engine.
Without a strong home league to be a part of, to help lure in the talent, that pipeline is bound to clog.
Mixed metaphors or not, finding that proper conference and grabbing ahold of it is Utah’s Job 1. It’s not overly dramatic to say that will determine whether the Utes stay afloat or slip under the waves to less relevant depths. Which boat will rescue them, which vessel can they send for and board, what ships’ captains should they trust?
Who will answer their S.O.S.?