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Commentary: Utah would make a great addition to the Big 12

In a summer of conference expansion talk, Pac-12 solidarity, the Utes do have some choices and would make a great Big 12 team

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Utah coach Kyle Whittingham hoists Pac-12 trophy after Utes beat the Oregon in the Pac-12 championship game.

Utah Utes head coach Kyle Whittingham hoists the Pac-12 trophy after the Utes beat the Oregon Ducks in the Pac-12 championship game at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas on Friday, Dec. 3, 2021.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Utah would make an excellent addition to the Big 12.

Yes, we know, the Utes already have a conference, love the Pac-12, have thrived with football in that league and have sent out the “Bat Signal” that they’re sticking with the group solidarity theme, even as many in that league currently, and into the future, have an eye out for the Big Ten.

Knowing all that, what about Utah in the Big 12?

Just for giggles, let’s see the fit. Just take one sport, the main one, football.

Utah would make an immediate splash on the Big 12 landscape if things went that way at some future time.

Under Kyle Whittingham, the Utes have built a strong brand with annual expectations to be in the Top 25 knocking on the door to a Top 10 ranking.

The Big 12 is a flashy offensive league with Oklahoma State, Texas Tech and TCU generally putting up speed, big numbers and occasional defense.

It’s on defense where Utah would reign in Big 12 territory because the Utes would make it a specialty, and it would surface to the top quickly.

Utah’s physicality would be an area of demarcation in that league. It already is a huge separator in the Pac-12.

The Utes would quickly be the most dominating defense in the Big 12. And they say defense wins championships.

Defensively, Morgan Scalley is recognized as one of the top coordinators in the country. He recruits it, develops it and sends it to the next level. 

Texas has been a fruitful recruiting ground for the Utes. Can you say Cam Rising (Texas via Ventura, California)? The signing of Clark Phillips (Bellflower, California) proved Scalley can go after the best and bring it to the Hill and state lines mean little.

Ah, recruiting?

Utah has proven to be very productive — generally ranked in the mid-30s range over the years.  

According to 247Sports, in the past five years Utah’s recruiting ranking has been 33rd in 2022, and before that dating back to 2018 it has been 34th, 30th, 42nd and 33rd.

Compare that with Big 12 champion Baylor under coaches Dave Aranda and Matt Rhule during that same time period. Baylor recruiting ranked 37th in 2022, 41st in 2021, and 49th in 2020 (when Aranda replaced Rhule), 36th in 2019 and 29th in 2018. 

But rankings can be deceiving, as many programs have proven. What counts is “development,” and this is where Whittingham has made his mark. The Utes have been among the national leaders in NFL draft picks, and it isn’t by luck of the draw.

Utah had 21 players drafted from 2017 to 2020. In 2020 the Utes had seven players drafted in 2019. Eight Utes were drafted in 2017.  

Those numbers compare with just about anybody, certainly a watermark for a Big 12 program during that timeframe.

The Big 12’s identity will morph into something else in the coming seasons without Texas and Oklahoma, and there is room for the league to develop a different brand.

Cincinnati proved its Top 10 capabilities last year, UCF can recruit, BYU has stepped up its game under Kalani Sitake and Houston is where the speed is.

Utah’s football brand has been trending for the past two decades as the original BCS buster. The upset of Alabama and Nick Saban in the Sugar Bowl continues to provide mileage, as does the Fiesta Bowl win over Pitt.

Fresh off one of the most exciting Rose Bowl games in history, the iron is hot with individual Associated Press voters confidently voting the Utes in the Top 20, many in the Top 10 and the Pac-12 media making Utah the preseason favorite (the Utes are No. 8 in the preseason coaches poll and the AP poll comes out next week).

Trends are important to brands.

What about two teams (BYU and Utah) from the same market? Could be an issue, but it solves a travel partner situation for the Cougars and adds the ability to have a Mountain time zone slot for televised games.

The fastest growing population areas in the United States are in the West, Idaho, Utah and Montana in particular. South Jordan is the No. 5 fastest growing city in the country, according to Rocket Mortgage.

Conversely, 360,000 people moved out of California in 2021. That market is dominated by professional sports — the NBA and NFL.

Without USC and UCLA, the Pac-12 is looking to keep things together, even if securing any long-term grants of media rights looks improbable. Educated predictors say Oregon, Washington, Stanford and Cal will be the next Big Ten fodder in some shape or form, be it this year or the next.

Oregon president Michael Schill just left for the Big Ten. He’s taking the same job at Northwestern, where he will be a voting member of the President’s Council of that league — voting on such things as expansion teams to invite in the future.

Now, that’s interesting.

Utah’s loyalty to the Pac-12 could end up being companions to San Diego State, Colorado State and Boise State, a team the Utes have avoided playing since losing to it in the 2010 Las Vegas Bowl.

There are many in Uteville who may be holding out to be invited to the Big Ten when that day comes, but all experts you can review during this summer of expansion talk since June 30 do not have a trending Utah in the conversation.

Just saying, Utah would make a tremendous member of the Big 12 and elevate that league in the absence of Oklahoma and Texas.

But, that’s just speculating. Just for fun.

Just in case.