Utah has won more conference titles in the last two years than Texas Tech has won since 1977
The most obvious threat to run the new Big 12 is, ironically, a team coming from the weakest Power 5 league in the country. Utah has captured the last two PAC-12 championships going 20-8 combined in the past two seasons and has every reason to expect to do well in their new league as well.
Now, it is fair to point out that during that time, the PAC-12 has been rather dreadful, especially when it comes to the middle and bottom tiers of the league with programs such as Colorado, Cal, Stanford, Arizona, and Arizona State all finishing below .500 overall in 2022.
Still, Utah has proven to be one of the toughest and most physical football programs in the nation in recent years. In 2021, they took down No. 10 Oregon in the conference title game to reach the Rose Bowl where they would fall to No. 6 Ohio State on their way to a No. 12 finish in the final polls. Last year, it was No. 4 USC that the Utes took down in the PAC-12 Championship Game sending Utah back to the Rose Bowl where they would lose to No. 11 Penn State to finish as high as No. 10 in the final polls.
The key has been the culture that head coach Kyle Wittingham has instilled. Entering his 19th year with the Utes, he’s not had a losing season since 2013 and he’s won 10 games in seven different seasons. Along the way, he’s had nine teams end the year in the top 25.
If there is something that might hinder Utah though, it might be Wittingham’s hesitancy to evolve his mentality and fully embrace the N.I.L. movement that is changing the landscape of the sport. In fact, he’s been rather open about his dislike of N.I.L. payments.
"“Pay them a bunch of money, do you have money we can use to pay them?” Whittingham said last October. “That’s kind of what it comes down to, that’s what it’s coming to. I’m not accusing anyone of illegal improprieties or anything like that because it’s above board now with NIL, but as I said before, there’s going to come a time in the very, very near future where the top-25 NIL pots of money are going to mirror exactly the top-25 teams in the country. That’s just how it is. That’s where it’s heading and there’s no debate about it, unless they change the rules. I don’t think they can backpedal now with the can of worms that they’ve opened.”"
It sounds as if Wittingham fears that his program may not have the financial backing to compete in the N.I.L. era of the sport and that could be what slows Utah’s ascension in the coming years. But if the Utes figure out how to compete financially, their head coach has proven he’s more than capable of putting an elite product on the field.