Los Angeles • These are weird times in college athletics as UCLA and USC, the Pac-12′s two flagship athletic departments, are leaving the West’s preeminent conference for the Big Ten in 2024.
By the time 2024 comes, Cameron Rising will no longer be at the University of Utah, so his opinion on the biggest big-picture topic in the sport may not matter. Although, Rising is coming from an interesting perspective, having grown up in Ventura, less than two hours from LA.
As a native of deep Pac-12 country, what does he think about the two LA schools leaving the West’s preeminent conference?
“It’s different, it’s a different feel to it because you’re so used to the Pac being featured with them, especially USC,” Rising said Friday morning during Pac-12 media day at The Novo Theater. “That’s the first team that really comes to mind. It’s interesting, but it’s still football at the end of the day, so you just have to go out there and play. It doesn’t matter what conference anyone is in. If they’re lined up across from you, you’re going to play football and that’s just the way it is.”
Stanford’s David Shaw on Friday was the only head coach to express a desire to keep playing the Bruins and Trojans in future seasons as a non-conference opponent. As far as Utah goes, there has been no indication that future schedules will include either program. The Utes’ next schedule opening is in 2025, when they are already traveling to both Wyoming and BYU.
Utah will play UCLA on Oct. 8 and host USC on Oct. 15.
Kyle Whittingham, no stranger to realignment, sees more change coming
Like Rising, Utah’s 18th-year head coach brings a unique perspective to realignment, having helped shepherd the Utes from the Mountain West to the Pac-12 beginning in 2011.
As Whittingham was quick to point out, though, going from the Pac-12 to the Mountain West is not the same thing as going from the Pac-12 to the Big Ten.
“I don’t see that as the same situation that we were in, but certainly going to be getting a read on the different opponents, a bunch of new teams that they’ve never faced or faced very rarely,” Whittingham said. “Travel is going to be a consideration. You’re going to go two time zones quite often. That’s something that’s going to be handled. You go a day early for all those games, leaving Thursday instead of Friday. A lot of things to iron out in that regard.
“As far as going from Power Five to Power Five, I don’t see that as the same as going from the Mountain West to the Pac-12.”
Whittingham on Friday labeled himself “surprised, but not surprised” when he learned UCLA and USC would be leaving the Pac-12, adding that “nothing can really surprise you, I don’t believe, in college football right now.”
Beyond that, Whittingham went to an old fallback, reiterating his long standing belief that more change is coming. Specifically, the concept of “super conferences” materializing, and the College Football Playoff expanding to 12 or even 16 teams at some point.
Utah-Florida opener looms
In the 25-minute session Whittingham, Rising, and Clark Phillips III conducted in the main media room Friday morning, there was an emphasis on Utah’s high-profile Sept. 3 opener at the University of Florida.
The Utes have not played an SEC team since rolling over Alabama in the 2009 Sugar Bowl to complete a 12-0 season. The last time they played an SEC team in the regular season was early in the 1984 season at Tennessee.
“Every game obviously is important, but when you have a chance to go down to SEC country, play a storied program like Florida with their history, a tradition, in a place like The Swamp, that’s a challenge for our guys,” Whittingham said. “It’s important for the Pac-12 to make noise on the national scene whenever we get opportunities like that. There’s several other teams in the league that are going to have similar opportunities. We have to make the most of it.
“If you want to gain respect, gain national attention, you got to come out and win some of those games. Hopefully, we can go down there and play like we’re capable of.
Added Phillips III: “It’s special, and then it’s our first game of the season, so we’re looking forward to it and a lot of people are going to be looking forward to watching it. “It’s the SEC, a lot of people respect them, so we’ll be able to show them what we can do, too.”
Agreed to in Sept. 2019 as a home-and-home series, with the back end being played in 2023 at Rice-Eccles Stadium, the game has become more than just an opener, but rather something of a referendum on where Utah’s season could go.
A loss in Gainesville of course has no bearing on the Utes’ ability to win the Pac-12 for a second straight season, but a win would further the notion that they have enough to get to a College Football Playoff. The Utes are expected to begin the season ranked inside the top 15, potentially the top 10.
Utah could theoretically get to the CFP even with a loss to the Gators, but the road there would be much harder.
“No, probably not,” Rising said when asked if he believes Utah is getting the national respect that generally follows a Playoff contender. “They don’t really worry about us, it seems like, but we can’t worry about that. We just have to keep putting our best foot forward and go play some ball.”
“That’s what our goal is, and we’re making sure we take it one week at a time. “Hopefully, all the pieces fall in place.”
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