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Brad Rock: Kyle Whittingham calls Pac-12 'demise' 'greatly exaggerated'

Head Coach Kyle Whittingham walks with media members as The University of Utah opens Fall camp in Salt Lake city on Wednesday, Aug. 1, 2018.
Head Coach Kyle Whittingham walks with media members as The University of Utah opens Fall camp in Salt Lake city on Wednesday, Aug. 1, 2018.
Scott G Winterton

SALT LAKE CITY — The Pac-12’s most successful football program played out its first practice of the new season, Wednesday, with all the requisite swagger.

No, we’re not talking about USC, Oregon, Washington or Stanford. Certainly not UCLA, Arizona, Arizona State, Washington State or Oregon State.

Don’t even bring up Cal, Colorado or Oregon State.

Those schools are losers — all of ‘em.

The Utes, though, are golden. They’re the only team in the conference coming off a win.

While the bowl-win narrative works well for the Utes as they begin the upcoming season, it hasn’t done much to quell derision nationwide. The “Conference of Champions” keeps talking about its success in Olympic sports, conveniently downplaying the fact its payouts and postseason success in football has slipped to the bottom of the power conferences. The league's bowl record was 1-8 last season, with Utah being the only bright spot.

The conference’s slide has been steep enough that Dennis Dodd, in a CBS.com piece last spring, broached the possibility of a Power Four, excluding the Pac-12.

“That’ won’t happen,” said Utah defensive line coach Gary Andersen on Wednesday.

Andersen is a prime source in these things. He has walked the walk and knows the landscape as well as anyone, having been head coach at Southern Utah, Utah State, Wisconsin and Oregon State — which means he has been near both the top and bottom of the Div. I revenue heap. He has been in places where players bring their own shoes to practice, and places where they have a national footprint.

“I think you get into a position where obviously they want to talk about bowl games last year,” Andersen said. “I don’t think that’s the norm. I don’t think we’ll ever see that as the norm.

“I would sit back and I would say the Big Ten and Pac-12 are very comparable conferences. One might have a little bit different feel about it (than the other). The natural reaction is always that the Big Ten is bigger, stronger, runs the ball more, is more smash-mouth, and how the Pac-12 is faster. I don’t think the Pac-12 has lost anything, in my own opinion. Me being in both conferences, they’re both highly competitive conferences and the best of the best, week in and week out.”

The Pac-12’s outright demise really isn’t likely, considering the gap between mid-major and power conference revenue, as well as the population base on the West Coast.

Still, it’s not ideal to be last of the best.

Have reports of the conference’s potential demise been exaggerated?

“Greatly exaggerated,” said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. “I’ll say it again. Greatly exaggerated.”

He went on to say there’s “too much stock” being put in postseason play.

“Now if it was a trend for two, three, four years — but one year? Not a factor, in my opinion.”

Whittingham has a point. But the conference’s problems, in some ways, have actually stretched out that far. Of the 12 College Football Playoff games played so far, just three have involved Pac-12 teams.

San Jose Mercury News reporter Jon Wilner notes that projections for future earnings place the Pac-12 well behind the other conferences.

“Panic in the Pac-12 as conference quickly falls behind rivals,” USA Today screamed in a June 12 headline.

The underperformance of the much-hyped Pac-12 Network is nothing to dismiss. Still, the conference owns and controls future media rights, which some believe could be a cash cow, as social media outlets expand their involvement.

Either way, things for the Utes on Wednesday were as upbeat as an Amway rally.

“Good practice,” Whittingham said. “This group has been working hard ever since January. Just non-stop. Didn’t expect anything different today than we got.”

The Utes can take comfort knowing they did their part to represent the conference last December, beating West Virginia in the Heart of Dallas Bowl. They are 6-0 in non-conference games against Power 5 opponents since joining the Pac-12. The NCAA’s fiscal report for the 2016-17 year showed Utah athletics brought in $2 million more than it spent.

It’s true there are concerns on the horizon, many of them out of the Utes’ control. But on day one of fall camp, they weren't thinking of that. For the time being, they were thinking of keeping their roll going. Everyone else could follow along.