by Andrew S. Jones

SALT LAKE CITY – The 2012 season is a mere four months away and marks the second for Utah as members of the PAC-12 conference. With a respectable inaugurating season last fall punching a record of 8-5, the Utes wrapped up spring football at the annual Red vs. White game last Saturday at Rice-Eccles stadium, and are now shifting into high gear for the upcoming season in pursuit of a national championship. While still getting comfortable being in a conference that holds a fast track to big ticket post season games, the Utes may have to prepare for a potential playoff as well.

Division I college football has never had tournament style post-season play to determine a champion. The current system is known as the Bowl Championship Series, which was formed in 1998 by Division I’s six biggest conferences.

According to the BCS official website, the purpose of the current system is to simply place the top two ranked teams in the nation to play against each other and deem the winner of this game as the national champion.

While the theory is simple and straightforward, there has been much controversy over the fairness, legitimacy, and even accuracy of this relatively subjective system to determine ranks.

One major point of the controversial ranking system is that it gives significant advantage to the six largest conferences in the nation that originally formed, and make up the current body of, the BCS. These conference champions have automatic “bids” to one of the five BCS bowl games which line up conference champion winners from two of the six conferences. There are only two “at large” spots for other high ranking teams, which traditionally are most often picked from one of the “automatic qualifying” conferences again. This in turn snubs other “non-automatic qualifying” conferences from playing for a championship or one of the other at-large games regardless of how their teams perform throughout the season.

Utah has had its run-ins with the lopsided favor of the current system, but has also been on the forefront of significant systematic changes. As members of the Mountain West conference, Utah did not automatically qualify for postseason BCS bowl games. However, in 2004, the Utes earned the title as the original ‘BCS Buster’ after an undefeated season under the direction of then Head Coach Urban Myer and Quarterback Alex Smith. Their record allowed a high enough rank to force the BCS to allow Utah to play in the Fiesta Bowl vs. Pittsburgh, the Big East Conference Champions. Utah won 35-7, to cap a perfect 13-0 season but somehow they still finished as #4 in the nation according to the official BCS rankings.

The Utes again made history as the first team to repeat as a ‘BCS Buster’ during the 2008 season when they played SEC powerhouse Alabama. Utah won 31-17, topping off another 13-0 season – the only team in the country that year to do so. Final BCS rankings placed Utah at #2.

In spite of these two undefeated seasons, the BCS never even considered the Utes to play for a national title and the problem continued with teams such as Boise State and TCU in subsequent years. July 1st, 2012 marked a significant step for the University of Utah as they were officially invited to participate as members of the PAC-12 conference and instantly allowing them greater access to title hopes.

However, an official press release dated February 22, 2012 from the BCS stated that the six conference commissioners and the athletic director from Notre Dame have commenced meetings in Dallas Texas, “In an effort to grow college football’s great popularity and success.” The statement went on to indicate that the BCS is evaluating possible changes to the post-season format of play to potentially be implemented sometime after next season when TV contracts are set for renegotiations.

Many sports analysts throughout the country speculate that the BCS is responding to added pressure from fans and business partners after the Alabama-LSU title game received the third lowest ratings for a national championship in the 14-year history of the BCS.

“There’s no leader in the clubhouse on this,” said BCS coordinator Bill Hancock while talking to the Associated Press Thursday night about potential post-season alternatives. “The most important question is, ‘Is there a need to make a significant change, and what are the reasons why a significant change is important?’ If there’s a need to do it, then it should be done.”

The recent meetings and comments made by BCS officials have many implications of a potential playoff system replacing the old system. While some may consider the PAC-12 move to be diminished in hindsight, many others of the Utah faithful are all the more excited.

“Being a part of the PAC 12 increases exposure for both the academics of our university and helps with recruiting better athletes,” said former Utah offensive lineman Makai Aalona, who was part of the Utes original BCS Buster Fiesta Bowl team. “It’s something I never thought would happen when I played … but we now have a seat at the big boys table.”

Even with the added boost of a BCS powerhouse conference, Aalona still salivates at the thought of a potential playoff of any kind to more absolutely determine a national champion.

“Some people say that if we had a playoff system in place in 2004 or even in 2008 when Utah won the Sugar Bowl, that we would have made a case for winning a national championship. It’s obviously all speculation because those teams never had a chance to prove it, but a playoff system would be a step closer to solidifying that claim.”

TV personality and sports analyst Dave Fox emphasizes that financial impacts alone are enough to keep fans of Division I football excited including Utah.

“The financial implications will be huge! Networks will bid fortunes to televise the football playoffs. The down side is, many will argue that certain deserving teams are still being left out. But that happens in any championship,” he said.

Fox also pointed out the extreme difference the Utes specifically will have in season TV contracts alone.

“As a member of the Mountain West, the Utes made about 1.5 million per year on TV rights; in the PAC-12 they stand to make nearly 30-million. So…1.5 vs. 30 mil, do you think it was a good idea to join the PAC-12,” he said.

Whichever way the finances fall, many of the Utah faithful are just excited to see some quality football, both during and especially after season. Along with the ecstasy of excitement, many still think back in a melancholy way still imagining what could have been.

“Can you imagine Alex Smith getting a shot against Matt Leinart’s USC team? Or the 2008 Utes getting a shot at Tebow in Florida? These things should be considered,” said University of Utah junior Andrew Fox. “How would RGIII have done against a real defense like Bama or LSU? A playoff would let us see all of this… [but] regardless of what happens, the Utes are in the best situation they can be in.”

So while we wait for the cards to be dealt, we can continue to drink in the tantalizing possibility of a playoff or just enjoy being in a fast track conference with title game access. Either case will only fuel the burning desire of the program – keep making some more room in that trophy case.