BYU’s spring football camp is finished and you know what’s next: the big plunge into the mighty Big 12 — and the resumption of a lot of pessimism. You’ve heard the talk — BYU is in for a reality check! This is going to be a wakeup call. Be careful what you wish for. Et cetera. 

All of which is understandable, but there is some hopeful precedent. This might be painful to consider, but if BYU wants inspiration — a model for how to make the big leap into a big-time conference — the Cougars only need to consider, of all things, Utah.

Yeah, those guys.

The Utes.

Trigger warning for BYU fans: The following paragraph will be about as fun to read as a 1040 long form, but hang in there for the payoff. The Utes’ venture into the Pac-12 has been rare and remarkable. They could’ve been a doormat like Colorado, who joined the Pac-12 the same year the Utes did, in 2011, and proceeded to sink to the bottom of the standings.

Instead, the Utes actually elevated their program. They haven’t just competed well in the Pac-12, they’ve dominated it the last couple of years, and this is a league whose members include some college football big shots — USC, UCLA, Oregon and Washington. The Utes have won two Pac-12 conference championships and played in the Rose Bowl. Who ever saw that coming? They are among the league leaders in NFL draft picks. They’ve beaten USC three consecutive times, two of them by routs.

You think BYU faces long odds? There was no reason to think that Utah could compete in the Pac-12. The Pac-12 schools have a long, legendary tradition in football circles. They also have a distinct advantage in another vital area. Think about it: The Utes are competing for California recruits with California-based schools — USC, UCLA, Cal, Stanford — and there’s no way that should work. The Utes still aren’t landing the cream of the crop in the recruiting game, but they are coaching up lesser-valued recruits to beat the five-star recruits.

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Anyway, the Utes have pulled it off. They’ve proved that it’s possible to raise a program to another level. When they entered the Pac-12, the Utes’ program was less accomplished than BYU’s program. They had to endure some hard times. They had won 20 of 26 games when they joined the league in 2011. They lost five games their first year in the Pac-12 and then produced consecutive 5-7 seasons.

Ever since then they’ve been on the rise. They have appeared in four of the last five league championship games and won the last two. They invested millions in upgraded facilities and recruiting and they upped their game. If they finish in the top 25 of the national rankings next season it will equal their total for the previous 118 years. 

For decades — really, since the 1980s when BYU was winning a national championship and piling up wins — the Cougars have thought they were ready to run with the traditional powers. Now they get their chance. They face the same challenges the Utes faced when they joined the Pac-12 — big-time football schools with established reputations.

Three Big 12 schools finished in the AP Top 25 last season, and undoubtedly Oklahoma would have made it four if the school’s head coach hadn’t taken the team’s best players with him to USC. Aside from traditional powers Oklahoma and Texas (which are departing for the SEC in 2024), the league boasts TCU, Kansas State, West Virginia, Oklahoma State, Iowa State and Baylor.

Of the four new teams that have been invited to join the league next season, BYU might rank third or fourth. Cincinnati has a five-year record of 53-10 and is two years removed from a semifinal appearance in the national playoffs; Central Florida is 46-17 the last five seasons; Houston is coming off 12-2 and 8-5 seasons.

The Cougars’ schedule reflects the challenge. After starting the season with Sam Houston and Southern Utah, things get serious with games against Arkansas, Kansas, Cincinnati, TCU, Texas Tech, Texas, West Virginia, Iowa State, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State. They no longer will play creampuffs in November when scheduling becomes especially difficult for independents. Utah Tech, Idaho State and Georgia Southern have been replaced by West Virginia, Iowa State, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State.

The Cougars are facing a daunting challenge, but if the Utes can do it ...

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