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Original BCS-buster Utah finally has a place at the grown-up table

Utah athletic director Chris Hill grabbed a quick workout Thursday in the Utes' football facility. As he watched the football players train, his program's new reality came into sharper focus.

"For the first time, I could look them in the eye and say there are no 'ifs' here," Hill told SI.com. "You guys have a great season, and we've got a chance. We're doing a 100-yard dash now, and we're not starting at 110 yards."

In 2011, Utah will begin play in the Pac-10. If its football team goes undefeated, as it did in 2004 and 2008, it probably will play for the BCS title. That idea still seemed like a fantasy on Jan. 2, 2009, when Utah coach Kyle Whittingham -- fresh off crushing Alabama in the Sugar Bowl to cap a 13-0 season -- was asked how a team from outside the BCS power structure could ever hope to win the national title.

"Number one, I believe you've got to be fairly highly ranked going into the season," Whittingham said then. "You have got to be in that top 15 or at least the top 18, get a start on it, a head start on it, in that respect. Of course, you have to run the table. I don't think that it can happen any other way. And then you have got to get a lot of help from outside, external things that you have no control over."

Utah will probably still have to run the table moving forward, but doing so won't be a requirement if it's a strong year for the league and no other team from a BCS automatic qualifying conference is undefeated. For the Utes, the ifs have been stripped away, leaving only the possibilities.

For those who pay attention to college football, Pac-10 commissioner Larry Scott's delivery of the golden ticket to Salt Lake City on Thursday might be the most satisfying move of the recent realignment. Cincinnati, Louisville and South Florida made the jump from non-AQ to AQ in 2005 because the Big East needed to replace schools that had bailed for the ACC. The Utes earned their place at the grown-up table by building competitive football and basketball programs. In hoops, Rick Majerus coached the Utes to the NCAA title game in 1998. On the gridiron, Urban Meyer-led Utah became the first non-AQ school to earn an at-large berth in the BCS bowl in 2004. Whittingham, who had worked as a Utah assistant under Meyer and predecessor Ron McBride since 1994, took over the head job in 2005 and led the Utes to 13-0 in 2008.

"Utah," Gov. Gary Herbert said Thursday, "was the original BCS buster."

Hill knew when Scott started talking expansion that the Utes had a shot. Naturally, Hill couldn't tear himself away from the constant stream of news. "It had a little bit of my attention," Hill said. "Like every second." Whittingham also followed realignment news closely for a few days, but as the Pac-10 tried to lure most of the Big 12 South, he turned away and worried only about football. When the Big 12 schools reversed course Monday and chose to remain in the Big 12, Whittingham's interest was piqued. "We knew," Whittingham said, "it was the opening we were looking for."

Neither Hill nor Whittingham seem to harbor any illusions that they were the Pac-10's first choice. That's fine with them. They're in now, though the wait was brutal for Hill. "You're used to having some control over outcomes," Hill said. "In this one, you really had to wait to see what someone else decides. That was the hardest part."

While Hill could only watch and wait in the final hours, he played the most critical role in bringing the Utes to the Pac-10. When Hill applied for the Utah athletic director job in 1987, his father, Mo, joked that Hill was a "delusional dreamer." Thursday, at a press conference to officially accept the bid to the Pac-10, Hill's dream for his program came true.

During his remarks, Hill repeated a reminder. "The Rose Bowl is here," he said, referring to Tournament of Roses officials who came as part of the welcome party. "The Rose Bowl is here." Hill spoke the words as if he hoped they would sink in for his audience, but it almost seemed as if he was giving himself a verbal pinch because he barely believed it himself.

Hill could have been a Pac-10 athletic director six years ago. He turned down Washington to stay at Utah. Meanwhile, Whittingham -- a former BYU standout who has never coached at a current AQ-conference school -- could have coached in an AQ conference before 2011. He has turned down several entreaties, including one this year from Tennessee. "People say you're sacrificing to stay at Utah," Whittingham said. "Heck, that's not a sacrifice to me. This is a great job."

Now it's an even better job. In fact, it might be more desirable than the job Whittingham turned down in January. Even if Derek Dooley works a miracle in Knoxville, the Volunteers probably won't be ready to compete consistently for the SEC title for at least two or three years. The Utes will enter the Pac-10 in 2011 as a favorite to compete for the conference crown. USC will be ineligible to play in a bowl and will have begun to feel the full force of NCAA sanctions. Oregon will be replacing the nucleus that led the Ducks to the 2009 Pac-10 title and made them the favorite to win the 2010 title. Utah, 7-3 in its last 10 against Pac-10 opponents, will -- barring injury -- have a bona fide star in quarterback Jordan Wynn, who will be a junior, and a defense that should be a veteran unit by then.

The Utes also might have some even better players, because now that they're in the Pac-10, they can draw from a different pool of recruits. Late Thursday, Whittingham asked a reporter to call on a land line; his cell phone battery had been drained by calls from excited recruits. "It's definitely gotten the attention of recruits," Whittingham said. "We've been to the BCS twice already. We already had a pretty good sales pitch, but this will enhance it."

In fact, it will enhance just about everything. According to figures submitted to the U.S. Department of Education, Utah's athletic department brought in $31.8 million in revenue in the 2008-09 school year. By the time the Utes become a full-share member of the Pac-10 in 2014-15, the league's new television contracts will have kicked in, and they could receive at least half that figure in conference payout alone. That doesn't mean Hill and his staff can relax, though.

"The Brinks truck did not pull up today," Hill said. "All the ancillary things -- your ticket sales, your fundraising, your marketing -- have to grow, too. Those are a big part of Pac-10 budgets. It's not just TV revenue and bowl money. We have a lot of work to do."

Hill is invigorated for the work ahead, though. "I got up today, and there was a lot of energy, because you have a new job," he said. "You have new competitors, new challenges. ... The most exciting thing is you get a new job without interviewing for it."

Whittingham also has a new job. First, he must tamp down his team's excitement about the move and keep it focused on a 2010 schedule that includes an opener against Pittsburgh and the Mountain West gauntlet of TCU and BYU. Next, he must adjust to life as a coach who, beginning next year, will start every season with a real chance to win the national title.

"What we were looking for was a level playing field," Whittingham said. "Getting the invite to the Pac-10 accomplishes that for us. ... Now, make no mistake, the bar is raised. The Pac-10 is a very competitive conference. It's going to be a very competitive situation. But at least the playing field has been leveled."

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