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A move to the big time for the Utes

Utah's football team scrimmages in April. The Utes are expected to announce their inclusion in the Pac-10 conference today.
Utah's football team scrimmages in April. The Utes are expected to announce their inclusion in the Pac-10 conference today.
Deseret News archives

When Utah crushed Alabama in the 2009 Sugar Bowl, there still was nothing the Utes could do to lay legitimate claim to the national championship. They were undefeated, so the Bowl Championship Series reluctantly invited them to a game — but not the championship game, because they played in the Mountain West Conference. The fact that many in these parts, as well as nationwide, believed the Utes could have beaten any team that season did not matter.

Those days are over.

By joining the Pac-10 (the invitation was offered Wednesday, and the official acceptance is expected Thursday), the Utes have assured themselves a table at football's greatest banquet and a chance, should they play well enough, to one day play for the title. It's a positive thing, both for the school and the Salt Lake area. It's a tribute to coaches and athletes who accomplished great things and built a winning reputation despite the handicap of receiving little national recognition.

Utah has had an athletic budget that was less than a third of the budgets of the bigger schools. Now that budget will increase, and recruiting will become a bit easier.

But don't get too carried away. The move to the Pac-10 is no guarantee of success. The Pac-10's two Arizona schools, Arizona State and the University of Arizona, are evidence of that.

Those schools bolted the old Western Athletic Conference in 1978. Arizona State, in particular, had enjoyed enormous success in the WAC, going undefeated in both 1970 and 1975. The Sun Devils were the team to beat in the conference, but they always had to battle the critics who said they played a soft schedule.

Since jumping to the Pac-10, however, the Sun Devils mostly have been just another team in a large conference, often lost among the bigger USC and UCLA teams. ASU has won only three conference titles in 32 years. The University of Arizona has yet to win one. It was ranked fourth in the nation in 1998 but still was second in the Pac-10 that season.

In addition, the Utes are diluting their longtime rivalry with BYU. Even if the two teams still face each other, the game will not have conference implications.

College football is caught in a whirlwind of dramatic changes right now. BYU's future may take it elsewhere, as well. The BCS still remains a flawed system that often ignores some of the best football in the nation, but there are many advantages to joining with the big boys.

A university's main purpose is, of course, academics. Athletics, however, can act as a showcase that brings attention and credibility. The University of Utah's athletic teams will never again have to battle critics who say their winning seasons were tainted by a lack of competition. The road ahead won't be easy, but this is the start of an exciting new era.