Can any team in Utah reach elite status?

By Kevin Graham, Contributor | Posted - Feb 28th, 2013 @ 11:59am

SALT LAKE CITY — Former New York Jets coach Herm Edwards said it best, once angrily proclaiming at a press conference, “You play to win the game!” That’s the main purpose of collegiate and professional sports, right? To win as many games as possible and in turn bring home championships?

Unfortunately for Utah’s sports landscape, that hasn’t been happening of late. Utah’s football program is coming off its first losing season in 11 years, joining its basketball program, which is in the process of its fourth straight under .500 season. Despite winning another bowl game, BYU’s football team’s 8-5 mark was way below its expectations while the basketball program is just the third best team in the WCC.

The Utah Jazz are once again just fighting to stay in the playoff picture, and if they hold on it will most likely just lead to another first-round ouster. The Utah State football team was the only one to actually win a title this year, but unfortunately it was in a watered down conference that has now dissolved the sport entirely. The basketball program was well on its way to compete for a WAC title until its four best players went down with injuries.

Now while sports for most of us is entertainment and a distraction from the real world, if you are like me it’s much more enjoyable to see your teams win more than lose. And just like most of us strive to achieve the highest goal we set in our life, we usually want the same for our beloved teams — and that’s a title. It's the thrill of seeing all our hard work as fans — the cheering, the screaming in disdain, the emotional toll we put forth, the money we spend to go to the games all pay off with a parade celebrating a championship.

This is something the good fans of the state of Utah really haven’t been able to experience. The last time a true national championship was earned was in 1984 with the BYU Cougars' football program. Otherwise it’s been a bunch of runner-up finishes — the 1998 Runnin’ Utes hoops team, the No. 2 ranked 2009 Utah football program and of course the 1997 and ’98 Jazz NBA Final squads.

Will a team from this state ever hoist a championship trophy? I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but it’s really unlikely in the near future based on the reality of the current climate. Now some could win league titles or even reach close to elite status. So with that said, here is how I would rank their chances:

  1. Utah State football: No, this program won’t win a national title but it can be the first to get to a BCS bowl game based on the talent that returns from this past season. In addition to a coaching change, the biggest challenge is the Aggies are moving into the MWC with the likes of Boise State — a much tougher conference than the WAC. But with the way their schedule is laid out, and the fact their new conference has a seat at the BCS table, the Aggies could be the first to at least earn a berth to one of the biggest bowls, which should result in a parade in Logan.
  2. BYU basketball: With the Cougars awaiting the arrival of one of the most heralded recruiting classes in the country, if not program history, they could return to national prominence much like when Jimmer Fredette was at the school. Now of course due to missions, etc., it may take a few years, but with the state of the watered-down world of college hoops, it’s not out of the realm of possibilities that this team can one day make a Final Four run.
  3. Utah Jazz: The Jazz upside is solely based on whether the young “core four” — Gordon Hayward, Derrick Favors, Enes Kanter and Alec Burks — can live up to their lottery-pick expectations. Of course it would help to speed up the process if the Jazz organization would actually let them play.
  4. Utah football: Coming off a 5-7 season, the short-term doesn’t look so good. It will take some strong recruiting classes and coaching stability along with an identity for the offense for this program to be a conference contender. But playing in the Pac-12 at least gives the Utes access for a chance to one day earn an invite to a BCS bowl or the new playoff system.
  5. BYU football: The Cougars' problem is that being an independent at this moment they do not have the access that Utah or even Utah State have. For BYU to reach a BCS bowl or earn a berth in the future playoff, it will have to go unbeaten. That will be a tall task, especially since the immediate schedule could be the most difficult in BYU football history.
  6. Utah State basketball: You can never doubt Stew Morrill, but for the first time in his coaching career he will be forced to play a very difficult schedule due to the move to the MWC conference — a league ranked as the nation’s best this season.
  7. Utah basketball: When a program literally hits rock bottom it will take a lot of time to rebuild. That is what has happened to this once proud program, and the fact that it is now in the Pac-12 will make it that much tougher to be a true championship contender.

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