While combing through twitter this morning, I came across Bill Connelly's excellent season preview for this year's Utah squad. If you aren't reading Bill's season previews, you're really missing out. Bill's calculations and prognostications confirm what I suspect a lot of you guys have already suspected: after a season of sky high expectations where many thought Utah could be a 9 or 10 win program, the Utes probably project to be a middling .500-ish squad. The specifics of Utah's paucity of run game talent or their talent infusion in their secondary are less interesting to me, but Bill's last paragraph really got me thinking. The following is a breakdown between Utah and BYU since 2011, when Utah made the jump to the Pac-12.
Average F/+ Ranking: BYU 31.5 (was 40.0 in the two years prior), Utah 60.5 (was 28.5)
Record: BYU 18-8, Utah 13-12
Record vs. BCS conference opponents (and Boise State): Utah 11-11, BYU 4-7
Two-Year Recruiting Rank: Utah 33, BYU 70
Holy War wins: Utah 2, BYU 0
I'll try to be as objective as possible about this. One team has access to improved recruiting, a major "stage", regularly scheduled games against elite competition, a pathway to the playoffs, and wins games against their rival...but isn't really beating anybody else. The other is a consistently successful program, has a higher projection via advanced stats, has shown improvement, has full schedule flexibility, regularly plays in bowl games (and wins them)...but isn't really beating anybody good.
Since 2011, BYU has beaten a pretty bad Ole Miss team on the road by 1 point (2011), beat a 3-9 Oregon State squad by 10 points on the road (2011), a bad Washington State team at home soundly (2012), and mediocre Georgia Tech team by a lot (2012). They've certainly been close (Texas, Boise State, Notre Dame, Utah), they'll have some chances to beat a few BCS teams this year, and they have won two bowl games against competent, non-BCS competition. However, and I'm not saying this to be mean, outside of the west, only hardcore football degenerates really cared about beating Tulsa and San Diego State in bowl games.
This isn't really a post-independence era issue either. The 2010 team won a close game against a mediocre Washington squad that finished 7-6 and beat a SDSU team that went 9-4. 2009 had the dramatic win against Oklahoma, but if we're being totally fair, the Sam Bradford injury must be taken into account. That year's team also beat a good Utah squad and Oregon State in a bowl. 2008 saw victories over 2 BCS squads, but Washington and UCLA combined for a a whopping 4 wins that season. That team lost to Utah, TCU and Arizona.
So even if we go back to 2008, when it comes to real, marketable wins, we have a semi-flukey big win over Oklahoma, and victories over solid Utah and Oregon State teams. There has been consistency, there has been success, there have been wins, but they have not been big wins, or really, not even that many medium wins. Since 2008, if we define a quality win as beating an 8 win or more BCS team, or similar caliber (Utah when Utah was good, Boise State), that's only 3 wins. By my math, Utah as 6, although like with BYU, the bulk of those come before 2010.
Even before conference realignment, Utah was probably better equipped to bring in higher ranked recruiting classes than BYU, and that disparity seems to have grown. Their conference and schedule situation is secure for the next several years, and they should not have a problem in securing money for their program, thanks to revenue sharing from bowl money and TV contracts. Does that infrastructure give them the tools to be a regular conference contender? Ehhhh, probably not.
So this brings up an interesting philosophical question. Would you rather be the little fish in a big pond, one that gets the awesome home games, and prestigious inclusion in the proverbial "Big Boys" club, but with less on paper success (if it kills you to think about this like Utah, let's use say, NC State or Wake Forest in our example) ... Or, be a squad that wins more games, almost never has a bad season, but doesn't get the national pub, strong home games, or higher ceiling? Let's say a program like Tulsa or UCF.
When I asked some of the guys at our Ohio State blog, Land Grant Holy Land, most said they'd probably want to opt for the bigger fish, so they can hold out hope that eventually, your program will break through...although it's possible that our lifetimes rooting for perhaps the biggest fish of them all have biased us a little.
I don't really think one is necessarily "better" than the other, and certainly one side trying to lord it over the other seems dumb to me, like the Kentucky football fans in my neck of the woods that beat their chests and chant SEC SEC SEC when their team loses to pretend colleges like Kent State.
I know Bronco Mendenhall talked about winning a National Title as a legitimately reasonable goal for BYU fans at Media Day. Personally, I'm highly skeptical that will ever happen again in my lifetime, and I suspect more modest expectations are probably what's in the cards.
What approach would you rather have? Would you rather roll the dice, knowing you may some terrible seasons, and some 57-3 curbstompings by Oregon in your future, knowing you have a slightly higher chance at greater glory, or would you prefer the consistent achiever who plays the scrappy underdog? Would you still want to be in Big 12 if your program ceiling was Iowa State or Baylor? What do you think?