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SALT LAKE CITY — With Texas A&M’s dramatic win over Alabama last week, Ute fans have been excruciatingly reminded of how difficult their team’s conference transition has been. While the Aggies’ transition has seemingly been, well, seamless the Utes continue to struggle in their new league.
Utah is clearly finding it difficult in the Pac-12, but many college football insiders scoff at how much weight the media puts on that transition.
I don’t have enough fingers and toes to count the number of coaches, analysts and former players who have laughed at me for asking them about how hard it has been for Utah to move into the Pac-12. These encounters have been in relaxed settings in which I trust the authenticity of their responses.
Although these insiders do acknowledge there are adjustments in moving from a conference like the Mountain West to a conference like the Pac-12, they believe the media has made too big a deal out of it.
The biggest adjustment the Utes have endured is the reality check that there are no weeks off. Utah could have played the way it did against UCLA, Oregon State, Washington and Utah State and still beaten teams like Colorado State, Wyoming and UNLV.
The Arizona State performance, however, may have produced a loss to New Mexico. Utah had to get up for two games every year in the Mountain West. In the Pac-12, players have to show up every single week.
Texas A&M has made a similar transition. Yes, the Aggies moved from a BCS conference to another BCS conference, unlike Utah. However, moving from the Mountain West to the Pac-12 is pretty comparable to moving from the Big 12 to the SEC, I believe.
The SEC’s talent level is that much better and deeper than the Big 12. Texas A&M could have an off week against teams like Kansas or Iowa State and still win, but there no off weeks allowed in the SEC. Ole Miss is the worst team in the SEC, but it would be middle of the pack in the Big 12.
It seems, however, the Aggies’ transition is going much better than the Utes’. The Aggies just upset the No. 1 team in the country and arguably the best program in college football.
Thousands of fans welcomed the Aggies home in College Station, Texas, early Sunday morning, officially christening it as “SEC Country.”
Meanwhile, the Utes had to fight hard to get to 5-4 in their first season in the Pac-12 a year ago and they will have to fight even harder to finish 4-5 this season and qualify for a bowl game.
So what’s the difference?
Here's the secret: There is none. At least not in the transition.
The Aggies benefit financially from their previous home in the Big 12. That foundation also gives A&M a deeper roster to begin with and the ability to sustain injuries better than the Utes. Another contrast would be the location of schools.
Texas A&M is planted right in the middle of a recruiting hotbed. With its move to the SEC, that pool of recruits expands into the best football talent in the world.
Utah’s location doesn’t help its cause. Sure, the talent pool expands into California, but that’s not nearly as advantageous as an expansion into the Southeast.
However, we are not comparing Texas A&M and Utah straight up — we are comparing their transitions.
Why has Texas A&M fared better than Utah?
TCU has also struggled going from a non-automatic qualifying conference to a BCS conference. As of now, the Horned Frogs are 6-4 with two games against top-15 teams left on the schedule — Texas and Oklahoma. TCU will likely end up 6-6, barely qualifying for a bowl game.
However, TCU is playing with a backup quarterback after its starter was arrested for driving while intoxicated and subsequently entered a rehab facility. The Horned Frogs’ defense isn’t nearly as deep or as strong as it was when they went to the Fiesta Bowl in 2010 or the next year when they won the Rose Bowl over Wisconsin.
If the 2010-11 Rose Bowl champions had been the team to make the transition to the Big 12, it would have fared much better than this year’s TCU team. In fact, the Horned Frogs may have won the conference and maybe even played in the national title.
It is likewise with Utah and Texas A&M. The transitions differ so drastically because the teams do too.
Texas A&M essentially lucked into landing a Heisman-level quarterback who could be running the potent Oregon offense right now. The program made an incredibly brilliant hire in Kevin Sumlin as its head coach. He energized a program, fan base and team that was already energized by its move to college football’s best conference.
It has been a prefect storm that may end with the Aggies in a BCS bowl game. If the Aggies had transitioned into the SEC in, say, 2008 or 2009 they would not have had the same success because they weren’t as good as they are this season.
Sounds simple, right?
It’s the same for Utah. If the 2004 or the 2008 Utes had been the teams to usher in the program’s transition to the Pac-12, it obviously would have gone smoother.
Instead, know-it-all media members now write and talk about how teams like the 2004/2008 Utes, the 2009/2010 TCU teams or the 2006/2009 Boise State never deserved to play in BCS bowl games.
They say teams like that couldn’t have competed in BCS conferences.
Don’t buy it.
Utah’s 2004 team (which was better than its 2008 team) would have competed for the Pac-12 title. With the offensive scheme Urban Meyer was running and with Alex Smith at the helm, the Utes could have beaten any team in the country that year, including the USC team that blew out Oklahoma in the national title. They could have done it having played all year in the Pac-12 or playing all year in the Big 12. Get back to me on the SEC.
The 2010 TCU would have probably won the Big 12. The 2006 Boise State team that miraculously beat Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl would have easily won the Big East that year. This year’s Boise State? Probably not, although it is the Big East. This year’s Utah team may have been able to win it.
It’s sad that the old yearly argument about whether or not non-automatic qualifying teams would compete in big conferences week-in and week-out has been easily dismissed because of what Utah and TCU have done in their new conferences.
College football success ebbs and flows … unless you’re Alabama or Oregon. For the Utes and the Horned Frogs and the Aggies, there will be good seasons and bad seasons.
Now that the Utes are in a big-boy conference, there’s a problem.
Image is everything and recruits can be swayed by the potential of historic BCS-busting seasons, but not mediocre or occasionally above-average Pac-12 seasons capped by appearances in the Holiday Bowl or the Sun Bowl.
So that’s the dilemma. It’s all about timing.
But now the Utes have a problem.
If Utah doesn’t put together a great season in the near future, it’s running the risk of never having a great one again.
For more predictions, analysis, and bowl projections, visit BYUtahInsiders.com.
Trevor Amicone is the founder of byutahinsiders.com, which covers BYU, Utah and national college football with weekly polls, bowl projections, opinions and analysis. Follow its brand new Twitter page at @BYUtahInsiders and Trevor's at @TrevorAmicone.