Kyle Whittingham needed 11 seasons to transform Utah from the new kid in town to the bully on the block.
That feels like a long time, but it’s hardly an eternity compared to the mountains others have climbed.
Lute Olson toiled for 14 seasons to claim an NCAA title for Arizona.
John Wooden needed 16 to win the first of his 10 national championships in Westwood.
Don James required 17 to win Washington’s national title.
Rich Brooks needed 18 to get Oregon to the Rose Bowl.
Whittingham’s situation was unique in that he took over a program that was successful at a slightly lower level of competition.
The Utes spent years mustering the resources required, in case the Pac-10 came calling. But there was plenty of work required once they made the leap, especially with regard to the talent and depth on the roster — and within that, at the skill positions.
Five years in, the Utes had the roster to compete for the division title.
Eight years in, they had the roster to compete for the conference title.
Eleven years in, they won the whole shebang.
The climb has exacted a toll on Whittingham, particularly the past year — a year defined not by the pandemic but the loss of Ty Jordan on Christmas Day and Aaron Lowe on Sept. 26 … a year Whittingham called “the most difficult of my coaching career in a lot of respects.”
“Our mantra,” he said, “was always, ‘We won’t get over it, but we’ll get through it.”’
Once they emerged from the fog of tragedy in early October, the Utes were a team bonded like few the conference has seen. Their first championship … their first Rose Bowl appearance … became more inevitable with each passing week.
And 3,808 days after officially joining the Pac-12, the Utes finally owned it.
Because of their journey and their destination, the Utah football program generally and Whittingham specifically stand among the biggest winners of bowl selection day.
Ohio State awaits.
Winner: The CFP selection committee. Fortune was kind to the committee, which avoided major controversy on several fronts and had perhaps the easiest task of its existence with No. 1 Alabama, No. 2 Michigan, No. 3 Georgia and No. 4 Cincinnati. The team in the fifth slot, Notre Dame, has no case for inclusion.
Loser: College football. Like so many before it, this four-team field is filled with schools from two regions of the country: the Southeast and the Midwest. To attract new fans, and energize those with waning interest, college football needs to grow the pool of contenders … or grow the playoff. The latter is far easier.
Winner: SEC. Of the 32 total playoff berths across eight seasons, the SEC has claimed 10. If expansion stalls, the conference would be perfectly content waiting for the next contract cycle (in 2026). It already owns the sport, after all.
Loser: The Pac-12. Of the 32 total playoff berths across eight seasons, the Pac-12 has claimed two (Oregon in 2014 and Washington in 2016). It needs expansion to happen yesterday. What’s more, the conference is sending only one team to the New Year’s Six for the fourth consecutive year, and the number of bowl bids (six) is the lowest for a non-COVID season since 2016. It must do better.
Winner: Pac-12 ‘State’ schools. Washington State, Oregon State and Arizona State all qualified for the postseason for the first time since 2013, the last time OSU earned a berth.
Losers: Pac-12 champs. USC and Washington are the only Pac-12 teams to win the national title in the past 70 years. This is the first time they have missed the postseason together since the conference began allowing teams to participate in bowls other than the Rose in 1975.
Winner: Group of Five. With Cincinnati in the playoff, the ceiling has been shattered. We weren’t sure it would ever happen. Congrats to the Bearcats.
Loser: Alamo Bowl (potentially). One team, Oklahoma, is without a head coach. And the other, Oregon, might soon be. Mario Cristobal is reportedly in deep discussions with Miami about returning to his alma mater.
Winner: Rose Bowl. Yes, it’s a letdown for Ohio State. But there are plenty of OSU alumni in California and Arizona to gobble up tickets, and Utah will sell out its allotment in six seconds. Plus, the Buckeyes guarantee solid TV ratings.
Loser: Cotton Bowl. The Alabama-Cincinnati matchup is the opening act of the CFP semifinals in so many ways — unless the Bearcats are within one score in the final minutes. And then the Cotton hits the jackpot.
Winner: Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh. All those years of frustration are distant memories with his breakthrough season in Ann Arbor. In style and substance, it looked a lot like his breakthrough season at Stanford.
Loser: Brigham Young. The Cougars won 10 games but, due to their lack of conference affiliation, were relegated to the Independence Bowl, where Kalani Sitake and Co. will face UAB. They deserved better.
Winner: UCLA fans. Instead of heading back to Las Vegas for the third time in two months (following two basketball games in Sin City), the faithful can make the short drive to San Diego for the Holiday Bowl.
Loser: Oregon State. The Beavers have every reason to be thrilled about their season and their berth, and playing in the LA Bowl provides terrific recruiting exposure. But Utah State is a low-profile, sneaky-good opponent that creates a no-win competitive situation. OSU would have been better off facing San Diego State or Boise State.
Winner: Washington State. In addition to the Sun Bowl itself, the Cougars get all those extra practices for the reconfigured coaching staff to mesh with the personnel.
Losers: Big 12 and ACC. With Clemson and Oklahoma not performing up to their recent standards, the two conferences received the Pac-12 treatment from the selection committee. Which proves our longstanding point that the only difference between the leagues has been the lack of a Pac-12 equivalent to Clemson and Oklahoma. Beyond that single, elite team, there isn’t much separating the three in any given season.
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