What Does Utah Do With USC, UCLA Leaving For The Big Ten?

Jul 1, 2022, 11:22 AM
Pac-12 Championship Trophy...
A general view of the PAC-12 trophy before the PAC-12 Football Championship football game between the Oregon Ducks and the Utah Utes at Allegiant Stadium on December 03, 2021 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Alika Jenner/Getty Images)
(Photo by Alika Jenner/Getty Images)

SALT LAKE CITY- Yesterday the college football world was rocked with the rumblings from Mercury News’ Jon Wilner that USC and UCLA were seriously exploring leaving the Pac-12 for the Big Ten Conference as soon as 2024. Those rumblings quickly proved to be true. A couple of hours later both USC and UCLA’s athletic directors along with the Big Ten Conference announced they were officially moving forward together.

With the Pac-12 thoroughly nuked by the SoCal school’s departure, it leaves other good schools in a precarious position. Perhaps none more so than Utah who has been one of the most steady brands in the conference for the past few years. So what next? Where do the Utes go? We’ll take a minute to look into what the options look like now knowing the situation is fluid and will likely change many times before there is a solid resolution.

The Most Likely Options

In the present moment it feels like the most likely options for Utah will be to either stay put in the Pac-12 (10) as it stands, or move over to the Big 12.

Staying put in the Pac-12 (10) will be very reliant on what schools like Oregon, Washington, and Stanford choose to do. There have been rumors circulating that Oregon and Washington have submitted applications to the Big Ten as well, and if they get accepted and join USC and UCLA that all but signals the official death of the Pac-whatever number you want to use.

Utah could find themselves being conference mates once again with in-state rival BYU in the Big 12 which makes some sense and at the present time feels like the most likely scenario. This would also reunite them with former Mountain West Conference teammate TCU as well.  If that were to happen, the Utes would most likely would be joined by Colorado, Arizona, and Arizona State from the old Pac-12. This move would be an attempt by the Big 12 to keep the Big Ten and SEC from having all the money and power to themselves. However, it’s debatable how much that would ultimately help stave the money grab in the long run.

Interestingly enough, there is also smaller rumor floating around that the Big 12 sees no value in expanding more. At this point it’s hard to know what exactly is real and what is just someone’s speculation, but it’s important to lay out as much information as possible while the situation is up in the air.

The Most Ideal Situation

What would be most ideal for Utah is joining USC and UCLA in the Big Ten. At the moment it doesn’t feel terribly likely, but that also doesn’t mean it couldn’t happen. There are many reasons and boxes Utah checks that would work really well with the Big Ten profile, more so than anywhere else they could end up.

For starts, Utah has always played a brand of “big boy”, get down and dirty in the trenches football that fits stylistically with the Big Ten really well. The Utes have certainly made a good argument over the years that their brand of football fits with what the Big Ten does between their recent match-ups with Michigan, Northwestern, and of course the Rose Bowl this past January with Ohio State. They can play that style of football even when it results in losses and it makes for some pretty entertaining games.

Interestingly enough, and this may be something most don’t look at closely is the gymnastics realm. Women’s gymnastics is growing at a high rate and the Utes boast one of the best programs in collegiate history. The Big Ten is also making moves in the gymnastics world with teams like Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State and Minnesota on the rise.

Utah is also a good match academically with their recent acceptance into the Association of American Universities (AAU). This membership is by invite only and goes to the top academic research universities in the country. The Big Ten happens to value schools with that accreditation as all of the current members except for one (Nebraska) have it.

Geography is also a friend to the Utes for this potential move as the Big Ten is most likely going to have to build a western arm of their conference so that the SoCal schools aren’t having to travel crazy miles every week for games. Having schools closer by with Big Ten membership makes sense so you can have divisions and then two or three interdivision games that require more travel per year.

However, as good as that all sounds, there is one thing that may not play into Utah’s advantage and in the here and now feels like it is the biggest driving factor of all. Money/branding from TV markets. If the rumors that FOX Sports drove this deal  are true (there are other rumors that USC instigated it) in an effort to take shots at ESPN and the SEC then Utah might get left out. Yes, they have increased their national identity substantially over the years and yes, Salt Lake is growing rapidly, but is it enough to be lucrative in the current race to control all the major TV markets? The answer is possibly yes if people have foresight and patience, but as we are all aware that isn’t usually how big business works.

Where this could really backfire for Utah is if Notre Dame decides to drop independence and join a conference. They are definitely already in the Big Ten footprint and have established rivalries within the conference. However, it is also possible if Notre Dame decides to no longer be independent that they could join the ACC where they aligned themselves through the Covid-19 season. What leans in the balance here is how stable is the ACC with the Big Ten and SEC currently trying to outpower each other? If Notre Dame decides the safe bet is to join a conference and at that a conference that doesn’t look like it’s going to get pillaged anytime soon then the Utes will certainly be left out of the Big Ten.

Could Utah Go To The SEC?

This is an interesting thought and it feels absolutely crazy to say it out loud, but again, if we are believing rumors floating out in the interwebs at the moment this could maybe happen. (Though my personal belief is that it is far-fetched.)

If the rumors are to be believed, and that is a big if, there is some word out there that ESPN and the SEC were totally caught off guard by the Big Ten/USC/UCLA’s move yesterday. Maybe in a lot of ways more so than the Pac-12. There is a school of thought out there saying ESPN and the SEC are now in scramble mode to make another move and that move will be out west to get those eyeballs interested in their product too. That could open the door for the Utes to…gulp…become members of the SEC.

There are a few things that could make this an interesting move.

First, is the recruiting imprint. Utah has been having a lot of success lately in Florida and now Mississippi- right in the heart of SEC country. Add in Utah’s long standing successes in Texas and you have some familiarity there that makes sense brand-wise.

You also have the 2009 Sugar Bowl and the familiarity that brings. Look, I get it. The Sugar Bowl was over a decade ago and it feels very “1984” to bring it up, but this one I’m saying from personal experience. I’ve traveled down to Mobile, Alabama for three years straight now to cover the Senior Bowl and inevitably during the small chat with locals it comes up. They are either Auburn fans that still delight in the pain Utah bestowed upon rival Alabama or they are Alabama fans that have had no choice but to respect Utah after beating up on their Crimson Tide like that because it just doesn’t happen that often. (Obviously, there is a third faction here that either don’t know or don’t care because it was “dumb luck”, but still, a lot of locals in that area haven’t forgotten.)

Add in Utah’s upcoming trip to Florida, and the possibility of leaving yet another impression on the SEC  starts to make this scenario make a whole lot of sense in a really weird, alternate universe kind of way. That is if and only if the SEC truly wants to move their brand westward though.

Control What You Can Control

The fact of the matter is right now we don’t know what is happening or what is going to happen. Everyone is in panic mode (outside of the Big Ten and USC/UCLA, nice move guys) to figure out what they need to do in order to survive.

As of this morning it was reported by Pete Thamel of ESPN that the Pac-12 had an emergency meeting last night with current members to discuss where everyone stands. What ends up being revealed from those discussions over time will go a long way to determining what will happen next.

Either way, the only thing Utah can do is 1) explore any and all options for themselves and 2) keep doing what they have been doing for the past 20ish years. End of the day all they can control is making sure they do everything in their power to network with the powers that be and win. If they can do that, they should be ok.


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What Does Utah Do With USC, UCLA Leaving For The Big Ten?