As if America didn’t have enough polarizing and divisive topics, here comes the latest one:
As a state tucked away in the Mountain Time Zone, Utah doesn’t get a lot of pub. It is a picturesque place. Its flagship university is perfectly serviceable, albeit academically unremarkable (tied for No. 104 nationally in the U.S. News rankings). But now the flagship university’s football team is the latest thing threatening to tear the union asunder.
Should the Utes be in the College Football Playoff? And if they are in, will anyone be happy other than their own fans?
Paul Finebaum, a savvy provocateur with a Southeastern Conference-centric worldview, opined about it Wednesday on ESPN’s morning show, Get Up.
"Let's be honest,” Finebaum said, “the country does not want to see Utah in the College Football Playoff.”
Finebaum speaks for the entire country about as much as I do, so take that coast-to-coast generalization for what it is worth. But Utah’s playoff candidacy matters for a lot of reasons, none more than this:
If the fifth-ranked Utes beat Oregon Friday for the Pac-12 championship, look good doing it, and bring a 12-1 resumé to the selection committee’s table—and LSU beats No. 4 Georgia in the SEC title game—it would be good for the sport if they make the playoff field.
Don’t get it twisted—Utah would have to deserve the spot. It would have to stack up at least evenly with a Big 12 winner with the same record (Oklahoma or Baylor). It cannot be admitted as a Pac-12 charity case.
But if all things are equal, the Utes in the playoff would be the best outcome for the health of college football.
It’s been three years since a team from west of Norman, Okla., made the field. In three of the five playoff iterations, the Pac-12 has been left out. This is a national sport, with national interest, and it would be better if the playoff is national in scope and not a regional tussle that excludes a large swath of the country.
Almost all of the Pac-12’s shortcomings are self-induced, so it’s difficult to feel too sorry for the weakest of the Power 5 conferences. Shaky leadership, bad media distribution, lower revenue shares and a lack of commensurate fan passion—that’s all on the league and its members.
(Stuck in a disadvantageous time zone for national exposure? Well, there’s not much the Pac-12 can do about that—and no, 9 a.m. local kickoffs are not the solution. And besides, most of the folks out west will take the short end of that stick in exchange for the lifestyle they enjoy.)
But if the Pac-12 produces a team that deserves a bid, it should get a bid.
It certainly cannot and has not hurt the league’s chances that the chair of the committee is a Pac-12 athletic director, Rob Mullens of Oregon. He’s spoken pretty effusively about the Utes after each of the rankings reveals, including saying Tuesday night, “We see a season-long balance of very consistent play on both sides of the ball.” Mullens also has made repeated mention of the injury to star Utah running back Zack Moss in the Utes’ lone loss, at USC.
(What goes unmentioned is the fact that USC won that game while playing its third-string quarterback.)
Prior history isn’t supposed to matter to the committee, but these are human beings and it’s impossible to filter out everything that happened prior to 2019. Not only has the Pac-12 been left out three times, but Oklahoma has been invited in three times—without success. The Sooners have a ton of tradition and score a ton of points, but they’ve also lost all three playoff games.
If Finebaum thinks the nation doesn’t want to see Utah in the playoff, what makes him think the nation wants to see Oklahoma lose for the third straight year?
Beyond national inclusivity, there is another reason why a Utah playoff appearance would be healthy. It would show that an outsider can gain entrance to The Club.
All 20 playoff bids to date have gone to schools that had won previous national championships and/or had access to them via conference affiliation for decades. They were all from the Old Money circles, accustomed to major bowl bids and massive revenue checks and being high on the list of five-star recruits.
Utah is new in these parts. Its Power 5 membership extends back less than a decade, having upgraded to the Pac-12 from the Mountain West and before that the Western Athletic Conference. Even the school’s best teams, like the Urban Meyer-coached 2004 squad, had no access to the national title despite going undefeated. (The historical discussion of that season focuses on Auburn as the unfortunate unbeaten left out of the national title mix while USC and Oklahoma played for the championship. Nobody ever mentions the Utes.)
A Utah playoff bid would represent the strivers of the 2010s—TCU, Louisville, West Virginia, et. al.—who worked their way into The Club. And perhaps a Utah playoff bid would inspire the strivers of the 2020s, should the door ever crack open wide enough to give Memphis and Cincinnati and Central Florida and Boise State a shot.
College football is the only sport where new blood makes fans uncomfortable. Toronto won the NBA title and it was cool. When the New Orleans Saints broke through and won the Super Bowl, it was a hugely popular reversal of decades of misfortune. In college basketball, we love the underdog—when Butler or VCU or George Mason makes the Final Four, it’s celebrated.
But Utah in the football Final Four somehow leaves some people unsettled. It is a rigid, tradition-addicted sport in a lot of ways, including its preferred national title contenders.
If the Utes put a qualified resumé on the table on Selection Sunday, it would be good for the sport to let them in. Then the argument can rage on.