While both Utah and Colorado are joining the Pac-10 to make the conference the Pac-12 this season, Utah might be the more interesting addition.
Colorado comes from the Big 12, an AQ conference. While the Buffaloes have struggled in recent years, they arrive having a pretty good idea what the competition will be like in the Pac-12.
Utah is coming from the Mountain West Conference. While the MWC has long been thought of as the best of the non-AQ conferences, there's still a bit of AQ snobbery out there that questions how well the Utes might handle the grind of a nine-game schedule in an AQ conference.
We'll soon find out, but before we do, national and non-AQ blogger Andrea Adelson and Pac-12 blogger Ted Miller decided to chat about it.
Andrea Adelson: Ted, today marks a momentous milestone. You get custody of Utah, which leaves the ranks of the Little Sisters of the Poor to join the all-mighty Pac-12. Congratulations. So how about a little back on forth on how you think Utah may fare as an automatic qualifying team? We know the Utes were the original BCS busters from among the non-AQs. What are your biggest concerns for Utah headed into uncharted waters?
Ted Miller: Andrea, glad to take hold of the Utes! Welcome to the new Pac-12 blog! The immediate measure is testing the old axiom that was consistently used against non-AQ schools in the past: While they can beat even an elite AQ team on any given day, they couldn't successfully negotiate the rigors of playing a full slate of games in an AQ conference. The idea is that playing BYU and TCU is tough, but when you throw in Wyoming, New Mexico and UNLV life is much easier. It's about getting ready to play USC one week, Oregon the next and Arizona the week after. Washington State a patsy? Well, the Cougars are a Pac-10 patsy -- at present -- but they won't feel like that after playing Arizona State, Oregon State and Washington. That week in, week out grind is what separates the AQ and non-AQ conferences. At least, that's the theory. And if the Utes go 8-1 or even 6-3 in Pac-12 play in 2011, they could take a big step toward invalidating that theory.
So, knowing what you know about Utah, what do you think will happen? How high are the expectations in Salt Lake for the Utes in Year 1 of Pac-12 play?
AA: I agree, Ted, I think there is a great unknown about how a non-AQ will do in an AQ conference. I have dismissed those "grind in, grind out" arguments in several debates with other bloggers and Mark Schlabach as well, but there is no question folks will be watching to see how Utah handles better competition on a week-to-week basis. I may be overly optimistic but I have Utah at 9-3 at this point. A lot of it depends on Jordan Wynn and how he recovers from his shoulder surgery. Utah gets kudos for hiring Norm Chow to help with the transition. I think Utah fans are very optimistic about their school's chance for success from the outset because of how the Utes have handled themselves against AQ teams in non-conference and bowl games. Utah posted a 21-12 record against teams from AQ conferences since the BCS began in 1998. That is tops among all non-AQ teams. I know the "grind" argument comes into play there, but Utah is generally well-coached and solid in all phases. The one thing that concerns me is the way the Utes played in losses to TCU, Boise State and Notre Dame last season. There were breakdowns all over the field, very uncharacteristic for a Kyle Whittingham team. I saw you had Utah at No. 7 in your way-too-early Pac-10 preseason 2011 rankings. Can you give us a more in-depth sense of why you have Utah there?
TM: The good news is Utah will provide an answer to the "grind it out" theory. I'm sure Boise State will be rooting for the Utes to prove the AQ snobs wrong. As for Utah being No. 7 in my power rankings, perhaps that's my AQ bias coming out. But there's annually a little of the ole "throw them into the hat" in the middle of the Pac-12. It's easy to see a top (Oregon and Stanford) and bottom (Colorado and Washington State), but the middle is a bit of a muddle, and that's the case most years. Utah seems to have some questions on both sides of the ball. Sure, Wynn is back, but most of his top weapons are gone at running back and receiver. The defense also takes some personnel hits, particularly in the secondary. As for Chow, well, he's a legend. But his previous three jobs -- USC, Tennessee Titans and UCLA -- ended badly. Is he still really "Norm Chow?" We'll see. I go through Utah's schedule and see 6-6 and think every win over .500 should feel like gravy. It is worth noting that not playing Oregon and Stanford seems like some serendipitous scheduling for Year 1! The schedule was not factored into my power rankings.
Tell me why the other 11 teams should fear the Utes?
AA: I understand where people say that about Chow given what happened in his past few stops. But he does bring a knowledge of the Pac-12 that nobody else on the Utah staff has, and that should be able to help when it comes to scouting and game planning. Receiver DeVonte Christopher showed flashes last season, and the incoming running backs, Harvey Langi and John White, have great potential. Defensively, safety Brian Blechen had a terrific season as a true freshman, and linebackers Chaz Walker and Matt Martinez return, and JJ Williams should be healthy. I think a lot depends on how the offense does under Chow. Will it be radically different from the spread Utah generally runs, and runs well? Can Utah actually score against good teams, something it had trouble with last season? Does Utah have the depth to be able to compete in an automatic qualifying conference? There are definitely personnel questions and questions about joining one of the bigger conferences, so it is impossible to know for sure exactly what will happen. Your guess is as good as mine.
TM: A couple of things we can agree on. First, it's going to be interesting. If Utah goes 9-3, as you predict, there will be a lot of cheering and a lot of "I told you so" from non-AQ conferences. Particularly since Utah looks like it is in a moderate rebuilding phase with just 13 starters coming back. Neither of us root for teams, but more than a few folks would view that as a positive for college football, increasing respect for some of the so-called "have-nots," even as one of their own becomes a "have." It also will be interesting to see how Utah changes with a seat at the big table. Does recruiting get a big boost? Does Utah get treated differently in the national polls? The Pac-10 becoming the Pac-12 is a significant alteration of the college football landscape. It will be fun to see how things play out.