Utah Sugar Bowl trophy

Utah is about to make “what if” a reality.
Photo by Marvin Gentry-US PRESSWIRE

There are many college football debates that can never be settled.

Could Auburn have beaten USC in 2004? Was Herschel Walker better than Barry Sanders? Are Oregon’s uniforms hideous or genius?

There is one debate that is about to settled and it’s going to impact the national championship picture as long as the BCS remains.

What would happen if an elite “mid-major” team played a BCS conference schedule?

Since the 1998 birth of the Bowl Championship Series 11 teams from outside the six Automatic Qualifying conferences have finished the regular season undefeated but not one has played for the national championship. The argument has always been that if BCS-Buster X played in BCS Conference Y they’d have three or four losses.

Now we finally get the answer. Utah, welcome to the Pac-12. The whole college football world is watching.

The Utes went to (and won) two BCS bowl games as members of the Mountain West Conference. If they can do the same against a Pac-12 schedule it breaks down the final barrier for the so-called Non-Automatic Qualifying conferences.

It means Boise State can play for the national championship.

What will it take for Utah to make the case for its Non-AQ comrades? It’ll have to be something very close to what the Utes accomplished in the MWC. They went 12-0 under Urban Meyer in 2003 and 13-0 under Kyle Whittingham five years later. In between and since they haven’t missed a bowl game.

For the argument to work Utah needs to be competitive in the Pac-12 right away. If you give them a one-season cushion on the five-year cycle they need an elite season by 2014. How elite? It’ll have to be at least a 10-win regular season to keep the discussion going. Eleven wins or better would hammer the point home.

If, however, Utah ends up being nothing but a middle-of-the-Pac team the strength-of-schedule trump card will continue to be played ensuring the biggest trophy is always held up by a member of the power conferences.

What about TCU moving to the Big East? Don’t the Horned Frogs share some of this prove-you’re-still-great burden? The problem is the Big East hasn’t played for a national championship since Miami and Virginia Tech left. TCU will have an automatic BCS bid but they’ll still be viewed at the bottom of the totem pole beneath the other AQ champions.

That is, of course, unless Utah tears it up in the Pac-12.

One single program may seem to be too small a sample size but it’s all we’ve got. College football polls are already based on incomplete information. With so few games and even fewer heavyweight non-conference matchups voters have to look for any possible way to compare teams with vastly different schedules. Holding up Boise State, the new king of the MWC, next to Utah, the old king, is going to be a natural comparison.

The odd twist is the Utes themselves don’t care about any of this. They already have their golden ticket. If they win the Pac-12 they play in the Rose Bowl. If they go undefeated they play for a national championship. It doesn’t matter if it takes four years or 14 years or 40 years, Utah is set.

But Boise State cares. TCU also needs Utah to win. Interestingly enough, so does BYU. Any outsider program that wants its 12-0 record to be taken seriously needs the Utes to find big success in their new home.

On the other hand, the teams that have the most to gain if Utah fails are the members of the big six conferences, including the other 11 schools in the Pac-12. They don’t need an extra argument in favor of somebody from the Mountain West playing for a national championship. They don’t want two undefeated teams from Conference USA and the WAC claiming they both deserve BCS bowl bids in the same year.

The powers that be want to be able to say Utah beating Alabama in the Sugar Bowl was a one-game fluke and now that they’re playing with the big boys week in and week out we won’t see them running the table for a long, long time.

The un-powers that be hope to be able to point to Utah as proof the football teams at the top of the Non-AQ leagues are just as strong as anyone else’s football teams, and just as worthy of playing for the crystal football.

The debate is almost over.

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Scott Terrell will be happily watching the Pac-12 South this year. Take a peek at Twitter and Facebook.