What were they supposed to do, say no?
No, of course not.
When the Pac-12 issued that invitation to the University of Utah a few years ago, the decision makers at the U of U wisely smiled and signed on the dotted line.
Not only did it give flattering approval of Utah’s previous athletic success, it represented a financial boon to the school in general. Given the rapidly-changing landscape of college sports, the invitation to join a major BCS conference meant stability and opportunity all rolled into one.
Stability, opportunity and financial security are nice.
Bad football isn’t.
Now in the midst of their second Pac-12 season, the Utes can’t seem to find solid ground. On the heels of last weekend’s loss at UCLA, they’re 0-3 inside the conference and with a game at No. 8 Oregon State on Saturday, life isn’t getting any easier.
A loss to the Beavers will mean a second straight 0-4 start in conference and an overall record of 4-9 since going the conference.
Quite clearly, the Utes are finding it difficult to remain afloat in the deep end of the pool. Unlike their days in the Western Athletic Conference and later in the Mountain West, there are no throwaway games on the conference schedule.
Back then, beating a team from a BCS conference was a big deal, representing national attention and a Top 25 finish. Now a game against USC, UCLA, Cal, Stanford, Oregon, et al, only means another game on the schedule.
At his weekly press conference, Utah coach Kyle Whittingham addressed that very issue.
“We’re facing a whole other level of defense than we faced in the MWC — other than TCU,” he said. “No question the caliber of defense is at a much higher level than we faced previously.”
The same goes for the offenses and special teams, too.
The Utes are in for a fight each time they face a conference opponent and realistically — given the injuries and uncertainty on offense — they’re in for yet another losing Pac-12 season.
Who knows? Next year might not be any better.
“Barring unforeseen things happening, I think we are headed down the best path for us,” Whittingham said. “Have we been productive enough? No. We’ve got to keep working and trying to find answers. We’re competing, and there are no moral victories, but we are closer than a lot of people think we are.”
He’s right, the Utes are heading in the right direction. At this point they’re not even getting a full share of the conference revenue. When they do, that money will go a long way toward getting better facilities and recruits. In fact, it’s already happening.
Whittingham is also right when he says there are no moral victories. They’re playing in the big leagues now and excuses aren’t going to help the Utes improve.
But are they really closer than people realize? Certainly, he would know better than most, but having seen Utah’s on-the-field product of late, I’ve got my doubts about that.
In order to succeed in the conference, they’ve got to stabilize the quarterback position. Perhaps freshman Travis Wilson is the answer, or perhaps the task will fall to one of the young QB recruits coming out of southern California.
It’s impossible to win in the Pac-12 without an elite quarterback and until Utah establishes one, the situation won’t improve.
But let’s not muddle the issue here. Yes, there is much the Utes need to do in order to compete consistently in the Pac-12, but they needn’t apologize for being where they are.