Loyalty is a funny thing. It can cloud the judgment of those it infects into ignoring history, talent, and cold hard facts. No amount of logic will sway the loyal until after the fact and even then one is likely to get an apologists version of events. Utah Ute football fans fell victim to the siren song of loyalty and as we near the end of a second season in the 12 PAC their critics are pointing out flaws in their loyal proclamations of early success and the faithful are bemoaning injuries as the culprit. Both are right, both miss the point. Utah faced a tough road in its transition from the Mountain West to a power conference, but their fans looked more to recent history than to the distant past for guidance. It was a classic case of not seeing the forest for the trees. We can now look back and see not just what should have been obvious, but what to expect going forward as the Utes seek their first conference championship.
To be fair, the aughts were not just good for the Utes, they were great. Coaches changed, but still the Utes kept winning. Ron McBride (88-63) was fired and Urban Meyer (22-2) built upon that foundation and led the Utes to an undefeated 2004 season and bragging rights as the first non-BCS conference school to not only make a BCS bowl, but to win won. Urban left and Kyle Whittingham (70-31) took over. Four years later the Utes became the first non-BCS conference school to twice be invited to a BCS bowl and win. Utah went 2-0 against the mighty SEC in those bowl games even when they had to go down to Georgia the second time.
Shortly after that the Utes got the dream invitation of all mid-major programs, the chance to move up to a power conference. They left longtime rival BYU behind and looked to embrace new rivalries and a brighter spotlight. Ute fans were ecstatic not just for the move, but to thumb their noses at the team down South. Scandal and scheduling did nothing to dampen the joy. USC was hit hard with sanctions stemming from Reggie Bush that would impact USC during the first years of Ute membership. The conference was divided North and South and by great fortune rising powers Oregon and Standford were left off the Utes schedule their first two years. The only way they would possibly meet was in a conference championship. Utah was among the elite of the mid-major programs nationwide and other than USC the 12 PAC South did not look too intimidating. This was the short sighted history fans chose to accept and crow from the rooftops at just how high Utah might rise, refusing to recall the lessons of Icarus, refusing to accept just how difficult a challenge their team was facing.
Had Ute fans looked beyond the Crimson colored end zones of Rice Eccles stadium, they would have seen the graveyard that was mid-major programs upon making the jump to "real conferences". My focus here is on teams that jumped up to the PAC. As Arizona and Arizona State learned when they left the Western Athletic Conference back in 1978, it is not an easy transition. Arizona went 5-6 overall its first season (3-4 in conference) and finished tied for 6th. They would not make their first bowl game as a member of the PAC 10 until 1985 and did not win the conference until 1993 (their only PAC 10 championship). Arizona State has been a little better, finishing 9-3 overall (4-3) and tied for 4th their first year, when they also made their first bowl game. ASU has won the conference three separate times, the first coming in 1986. Now Utah was not terrible overall in its first year, finishing with an 8-5 record and a bowl victory. However, the Utes went just 4-5 in the conference and clearly struggled with the week-to-week grind.
This has been a respectable season, but not what Ute fans were used to and through solid play late last season, Ute fans came back with renewed optimism. Alas, Utah already has 5 in-conference losses this season and will be pressed just to match last seasons record. Moving up in competition comes with its bumps and bruises. Utah fans have every right to believe that it will not take 7.5 years to win the first 12 PAC championship, but in hindsight it was foreseeable that Utah would struggle and it might take a few years to match the personnel on the field necessary for their team to win. The first two seasons did not deliver the fairy tale endings Ute fans envisioned, but in two or three years when their recruits are on par with the rest of the 12 PAC don't be surprised if they capture that crown.