It was a celebrated event when Utah became a member of the Pac-12 Conference nearly a dozen years ago.
“Today is an absolutely great day to be a Ute,” said then-athletic director Chris Hill at a press conference, and then he was interrupted by applause.
It seemed like the perfect move for the Utes, and they spent millions upgrading their facilities and preparing for this step up in the college football world.
It reached a pinnacle when they won the league championship last season and earned a berth in the Rose Bowl.
Things couldn’t be much better.
Now it’s all falling apart.
The Pac-12 is about to crumble like the Western Athletic Conference, Utah’s home from 1962-1999.
The Pac-12 is doomed. UCLA and USC — the league’s star attractions — left the conference last week to join the Big Ten.
Washington and Oregon tried to do the same thing, but the Big Ten said it will hold at 16 teams for now.
Notwithstanding, it is clear those schools want out. It’s difficult to imagine that Stanford and Colorado aren’t thinking the same thing.
Where can those schools go from here? Remaining in the league doesn’t seem like much of an option.
The move by UCLA and USC is certain to trigger similar moves, probably in the ACC and Big 12. It could also create a major division in the game, with super conferences and whatever is left over.
For that matter, it could be the breaking point for any pretense that the elite conferences — SEC, Big Ten — are part of the NCAA, which ceded almost all control of the game to the big conferences and the College Football Playoff.
They could formally break away and go it alone, which is just about what they’ve done already anyway. It also could force other changes such as the (much-needed) expansion of the playoff.
Whatever happens, it will not increase access to the playoff for the Group of Five teams (the five conferences outside the Power Five).
But, then, they never really had access anyway. They could be forced to go it alone, too.
The Big 12 is the best option for Pac-12 teams looking to jump off a sinking ship. When the Big 12 lost its two biggest brands in Texas and Oklahoma to the SEC a year ago, the league signed up four new schools as replacements — BYU, Central Florida, Houston and Cincinnati — bringing it back up to 12 members.
But the league still lacks a flagship school(s), and the Big 12 could now be in position to find five excellent choices in the Pac-12 — Oregon, Washington, Stanford, Utah and Colorado.
The Pac-12 says it plans to “explore all expansion options” — the media has speculated that Boise State and San Diego State will be at the top of the list of additions — but the league is not operating from a position of strength.
It has little to offer and can’t compete with the other Power Five conferences. The Pac-12 has become irrelevant. It has the inherent problem of doing business in the West Coast time zones, where games finish long after the East Coast has gone to bed.
That means little exposure, which hurts recruiting, rankings, marketability, money and TV contracts.
The league’s teams underperform. The league’s TV network is a flop and isn’t even included in many TV packages. The bottom line is that teams are losing financially if they want to keep up with the rest of the Power Five.
The L.A. Times reported, “The Pac-12 has lagged behind other major conferences for years in media rights revenue, distributing $344 million among its schools in the 2021 fiscal year. In the same year, the Big Ten handed out $680 million.”
Why would the Pac-12 even be treated as a P5 conference by the College Football Playoff selection committee, especially if other schools defect (and this seems likely), especially now that the Power Five is about to become the Power Two?
All of which means Utah has to be weighing its options. It seems inevitable that more Pac-12 schools will depart the league.
In an ironic twist of fate, the Utes could follow old rival BYU into the Big 12. That’s probably their best option, if the Big Ten continues to place a moratorium on further growth.
The Utes would be an attractive target for any conference expansion. They have done nothing but increase their prestige since joining the Pac-12.
In the last eight years, the football team has won or tied for the South Division championship four times and finished in the Top 25 five times.
Utah thought it had found a permanent home when it left the Mountain West to join the Pac-12, but only 11 years later, the Utes very well could be looking elsewhere.