What Utah football fans think about UCF Knights and the Big 12

SALT LAKE CITY — If you needed a reminder of how much conference realignment has torn up the college football landscape, roam the tailgating scene at Utah’s Rice-Eccles Stadium.

Survey the sea of red. Marvel at the nearby mountains. Hear the fans referring to their school as “the U.” Try not to get winded by the altitude (some 4,300 feet above sea level).

Then remember this: UCF won’t be playing War on I-4 rival USF but will soon be making semiregular appearances out here when Utah joins the Knights in the Big 12 next year.

“A lot of distance between us,” said Randy Moon, a lifelong Utes fan from nearby Heber City.

About 2,300 miles, to be exact. Or 2,200 miles more than the distance between Raymond James Stadium and FBC Mortgage Stadium at UCF.

The Knights and Utes have never played but do have a few things in common. They’re both large public schools in top-50 metro areas situated in fast-growing states. Both are tier-1 research schools ranked between No. 100 and 140 by U.S. News and World Report.

Both climbed their way to power conferences through football success. Twenty five years ago, UCF was an independent while Utah was in the WAC. The Utes had an undefeated season under Urban Meyer and Dan Mullen, then three consecutive years with at least 10 wins under Kyle Whittingham to earn an invitation to the Pac-12. The Knights’ perfect season in 2017 generated enough buzz for them to rise from the AAC into the Big 12 this year. Both home environments are intimidating, too, even though neither team plays at a gargantuan stadium.

But the fan bases have little intersection; Utah student Kendrick Jackson had to double-check to make sure UCF’s mascot was the Knights.

“Nobody ever heard of UCF around here until about eight years ago,” Utes fan Scott Bennett said from his camping chair, an hour and a half before kickoff at last week’s Florida-Utah game.

Though UCF’s name means more now than it did back then, Utah isn’t exactly buzzing about future games against the Knights. That’s not an insult. It’s a reflection of the fact that college football remains, at its core, a regional sport, even if its conferences no longer reflect that.

“I wish we could go back to the days that we had proximate rivalries through a certain part of the country,” Utah fan David Baird said after parking his SUV with its Utes vanity license plate. “The Pac-12′s been wonderful for that. Certain parts of the old Mountain West Conference were pretty good at that.”

The Big 12? It will span from West Virginia to Orlando to the Arizona schools and Utah.

Most importantly for Utah fans, it allows for the return of the Holy War series with BYU — a rivalry so heated that it elicits expletives in several tailgating setups.

“It’s good for the state,” Utah fan Jodi Hugoe said of the series’ revival. “It’s good for the sport.”

It’s what college football is supposed to be about: nearby schools with fanbases that can taunt each other at work or the grocery store. USF and UCF have that. So do BYU and Utah.

Could the Knights and Utes ever evoke so much vitriol, or create something resembling a rivalry?

“I don’t think so,” said Rick Bowyer, a lifelong Utes fan and Salt Lake City resident.

“Not enough connection there,” Jackson said.

“It’s just too far,” Utah student Tyler Lewis said.

“It’s so far removed,” Baird said. “As a Utes fan, you know what I’m going to view them as? I’m going to view them as the hot cousin I only see once a year and is awesome to talk to, but I really don’t think of them the rest of the year. How’s that?”

Sounds like a fitting, if weird, encapsulation of where college football is going.

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