The topic was raised Tuesday morning on “DJ & PK in the Morning” on The Zone Sports Network, in the aftermath of Alabama winning their fifth football national championship in nine years on Monday night, as to which program in the state of Utah was closest to winning a national title of their own. The discussion was opened to any and all collegiate programs in any sport in the state of Utah but for the purposes of this discussion, the focus will stick to the local college football programs.
By pure virtue of their being members of the Pac-12 Conference, the University of Utah has the clearest path to a national title at the Football Bowl Subdivision level. Kyle Whittingham’s Utes would have to win the Pac-12 South Division with, at worst, an 11-1 record and then defeat the Pac-12 North Division Champion in the Pac-12 Championship Game to move to 12-1. They then would have to hope that their resume outshines the at least one of the respective champions of the Big 12, Big Ten, ACC and SEC conferences, and maybe even the second place finisher from any of those conferences save the Big 12.
As it stands now, that seems like a gauntlet Utah is not going to be able to navigate anytime soon, what with USC looking like they’re on the precipice of a new Pac-12 dynasty, and the fact that the Utes have not won the Pac-12 South Division since becoming members of the conference while the other five programs who make up the rest of the division all own at least one division title in that time.
At BYU, their schedules have the name recognition that garners eyeballs early in the season and causes fans and media to consider “what if.” The Cougars’ 2018 slate features games against Arizona, Cal, Wisconsin and Washington. That’s just September. Add in a likely Top 25 contender in Boise State and a Holy War matchup to finish the season at Utah, and you have all the makings of the type of schedule that a Independent like BYU would need to get serious consideration from the College Football Playoff.
The reality is that the Cougars, who limped their way to a 4-9 record against a similar strength of schedule in 2017, won’t be picked to run the table anytime soon. They would need a sterling 12-0 record to simply be in the discussion. It isn’t 1984, unfortunately.
Utah State’s path is even murkier. The University of Central Florida, the AAC Champion in 2017, claimed a national title based on their being the lone FBS program to finish the season undefeated. Despite that claim, along with four number one votes in the final Associated Press Poll to back it up, the Knights finished 12th in the final College Football Playoff Rankings and sixth overall in the AP Poll.
For the Aggies to break through the proverbial glass ceiling that stifled UCF’s chances to legitimize their title claim, they would have to load up in their non-conference schedule with multiple Top 25 teams and hope that another program in the Mountain West Conference, say Fresno State, joins Boise State in maintaining Top 25 status. USU would then need to defeat those teams convincingly, go undefeated and then hope to heck that the College Football Playoff Committee recognized their error in denying UCF’s bid and allows the Aggies to settle things on the field. It’s more likely for BYU to announce that they’ve done away with their Honor Code or agree to play games on Sunday.
The arguments for BYU and Utah State, and even Utah, get easier if the CFP decides to expand the College Football Playoff to eight teams sooner than later as many have called for, like Tim Brando. Similar roadblocks to the ones discussed above still would exist for the Cougars and Aggies as they are not Power 5 programs but the path for the Utes would become easier to envision as a second place finish in the Pac-12 would not longer mean elimination from the discussion.
As we look at the other football programs in the state, Southern Utah and Weber State’s chances in the Football Championship Subdivision are more cut-and-dried. The recipe is to simply win the Big Sky Conference, or at least be among the best three-to-four teams in the conference, make the 24-team FCS Playoff field and prove your mettle on the gridiron en route to a championship. Sounds democratic enough, right?
SUU hosted their first-ever FCS home playoff game this past December when they faced Weber State in Cedar City after winning the Big Sky’s automatic bid into the playoffs. The Thunderbirds were beaten thoroughly on that chilly December night by the Wildcats, which sent Weber onto the FCS quarterfinals. The good news for SUU is that head coach Demario Warren appears to have things rolling in Cedar City and is recruiting at a solid clip. Should SUU take the next step and begin winning playoff games, then it’s easy to see the Thunderbirds as a team that has taken the next step in their progression and should be studied more closely as an FCS contender.
Back to Weber State. Jay Hill has been a savior for the program, having stabilized it after a few turbulent years following the abrupt departure of former head coach John L. Smith to Arkansas before he even coached the team in a game. Hill was brought in to rebuild the Wildcats and after a two win debut, he has led Weber to 6, 7 and 11 wins in the past three seasons, the last two campaigns resulting in playoff appearances. The Wildcats also achieved a all-time program-best #5 ranking in the final FCS Coaches and STATS FCS polls released on Monday.
Hill’s magic has resulted in the Wildcats becoming a player in the FCS ranks quickly. They came maddeningly close to a upset of then top-ranked James Madison in the FCS Quarterfinals on the Dukes’ home field in December. That performance earned the admiration of many pundits, causing a closer look at the Wildcats football program to examine if they have staying power. The good news is that, yes, Weber State does have staying power and should remain relevant for as long as Hill is coaching in Ogden.
The Wildcats will say farewell to stars in Big Sky Defensive MVP and consensus First Team All-American Taron Johnson, All-American cornerback and punt returner Xequille Harry, consensus All-American tight end Andrew Vollert and All-Big Sky quarterback Stefan Cantwell, but there remains a bevy off young talent that contributed to the Wildcats’ run this season who should be ready to take another step forward in 2018. Kevin Smith, Rashid Shaheed, Treshawn Garrett and kicking weapon Trey Tuttle headline the talent expected to return in 2018.
If Jay Hill finds an adequate replacement for Cantwell at the helm of the Weber State offense and the other receivers and tight ends can make up for Vollert’s production in the passing game, along with finding replacements for Johnson and Harry in the defensive backfield, the Wildcats should be a the favorite in the Big Sky next season and a true darkhorse contender to win it all. Wildcat fans should be excited for the immediate future of Weber State football.
Snow College will have their gripe about being included in this discussion but the NJCAA National Champion is based on polls, a la the old BCS system in the FBS ranks, and can be manipulated. The California JUCO system is also not part of the national championship debate under the NJCAA, which lops off a large contingent of would-be contenders. Paul Peterson led the Badgers to #4 final ranking this season in his debut and expectations will be for Snow to remain a contender going forward but the best bet in-state for a team to celebrate a national championship in the near future resides in Ogden, UT.