June 16, 2010
As expected, the Mountain West wins one, then loses one. Less than a week after adding mid-major powerhouse Boise State to the conference roster, the MWC is losing Utah to the Pac-10. The university will hold a press conference Thursday to announce the move; this will come immediately following a meeting of the Board of Trustees – the only agenda item: "Discussion of athletic conference."
Locally, the move splits Utah with its natural Beehive State rival, BYU, a solid rivalry dating to 1922. More important from the national perspective, though, is the hit to the Mountain West's crusade for full BCS privileges. That includes an automatic bid to one of the big-money bowls for the conference champion and a vastly greater share of the bowl payout. Already, the success of Utah, BYU and TCU over the last two years has the MWC within striking distance of automatic BCS contention in 2012, according to the Series' own three-pronged test for inclusion. Boise's addition threatened to put the league over the top, especially if an automatic slot opened up with the implosion of the Big 12.
Instead, the Big 12 survives, the jilted Pac-10 is forced to settle for just one new addition to get to an even dozen after poaching Colorado last week, and the Mountain West bids a reluctant farewell to one of its flagship members.
Utah will be the first school to exit the MWC since the conference was forged by exiles from the 16-team WAC experiment in 1999. But if there is a "mid-major" outfit prepared to cross the divide into one of the "Big Six" conferences, clearly it's the Utes. They are 13-4 against "Big Six" competition (5-3 vs. the Pac-10) since 2004, with a pair of undefeated seasons and subsequent BCS bowl wins. They're only two years removed from a 13-0 run that landed them a No. 2 finish in the AP poll and some serious national-championship buzz after a decisive Sugar Bowl upset of Alabama. They have the longest bowl winning streak in the country, now at nine games. They hail from one of the fastest-growing states in the Union. They could be Pac-10 contenders within five years, and that counts as a conservative estimate.
Twelve teams almost certainly means a divisional split and conference championship game for the conference, which – in contrast to the extreme brand loyalty of the 10-team Big 12 and 12-team Big Ten – may actually concede to the mathematically inevitability of becoming the "Pac-12." Pencil the Utes into the new Pac-12 South, then, and marvel at how grown-up they look there next to USC and UCLA and fellow newcomer Colorado. The promotion has been a long time coming.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.