Utah getting its shot in BCS spotlight

To look at Jordan Wynn, with his floppy brown hair, his boyish smile and a physique that belies three years of training table meals and weight room workouts, it is little wonder he didn’t have a single Pac-10 school interested in him in high school.

“When he first got here, I was like, really? That guy’s going to play?’’ Tony Bergstrom, Utah’s right tackle said of the Utes junior quarterback. “He looks like a mouse more than a player, especially when he first got here. He was even skinnier then.”

And yet when the Utes run out of the Los Angeles Coliseum tunnel on Saturday afternoon, ready for their welcome to the Pacific-12 Conference against USC, it is fitting that Wynn will lead them.

The Utes, like their quarterback, hope to be the mouse that roared.

For nearly a decade, coaches, media, fans and even Congress have railed against the Bowl Championship Series system, calling it a cartel that is stacked against schools from outside the six power conferences. No place did that criticism coalesce more than in Utah, where the Utes had two unbeaten seasons in five years but had little voice in the national championship debate. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) spurred the Justice Department to investigate the BCS for antitrust violations.

Now, amid a shifting NCAA landscape, Utah is the one school that has gone from outsider to insider.

The move from the Mountain West Conference has elated the football program, excited the university and energized a city — the 33rd largest TV market in the United States, yet with a sports identity that is often conflicted. Is it a major-league town (the Jazz have long enjoyed a rabid following) or a minor-league one (it has been a long-time home to Triple-A baseball)?

All along the downtown streets here, lampposts are adorned with banners welcoming the Utes to the Pac-12. Applications at Utah have spiked 16 percent since the announcement last summer that the school would be joining the Pac-12 — something that could often be attributed to a slumping economy, except that other schools in the state have stayed flat. At the Salt Lake City Tribune, there has been a 200 percent jump in page views for Utah-related content from a year ago.

“We felt the BCS wasn’t exactly fair when we were on the outside,” said Dr. Lorris Betz, Utah’s interim president. “I’d have to be honest and say we still feel the same way about it. There were some pretty hard feelings in our state but I’m glad we’re in that crowd now. We’ve got a whole lot of excitement around our campus, not just about the football games and basketball games, but about our academic fit. We will recruit students and faculty in California and the West Coast, as well as athletes.”

Kyle Whittingham, sitting in the football complex’s small corner office — made cozier by the presence of a cot where he sometimes spends the night — smiles when he is asked what the leap from the Mountain West to the Pac-12 has meant to him.

“I’ve got a new job without having to move,” said Whittingham, the seventh-year head coach who turned down the Tennessee job two seasons ago. “It’s a situation where it’s a great job to begin with, but it keeps getting better and better. The bar has been raised in the whole athletic department.”

Whittingham says he has seen it in the quality of the coaches he has been able to hire (new offensive coordinator Norm Chow and offensive line coach Tim Davis each coached in the NFL and together at USC) and the players he has been able to recruit.

Freshman running back Harvey Langi, from nearby Bingham High, turned down USC, UCLA and Stanford to go to Utah. John White, a junior college recruit from Los Angeles who rushed for 150 yards and scored twice in last week’s 27-10 win over Montana State, said he likely would have gone elsewhere if Utah were still in the Mountain West.

“I knew about the Utes, but it put it in a different perspective,” said White, who had offers from Cal, Mississippi, Purdue and Kentucky. “This is a place I want to be.”

More conspicuous evidence of Utah’s place in the new world order will be seen in the coming years, as Utah begins to reap the benefits of the Pac-12’s new $250 million-per-year TV deal with FOX and ESPN. A renovation of the football offices that was supposed to run $17 million will now be $30 million.

As for other projects?

“The additional revenue that is coming into the budget, we’ve got all kinds of ideas about how to spend,” Whittingham said, his smile shared by other coaches at Utah. “It will be spent wisely.”

But there is the rub.

For all the enthusiasm over the move to the Pac-12, and the accompanying infusion of money and resources, it has underscored just how far Utah lags behind the haves of college football.

Last year’s $29.7 million athletic department budget was barely half the median budget in the Pac-12, which was the lowest of the BCS conferences, according to the Sports Business Journal. It was also nearly $10 million less than Washington State, which had by far the lowest budget in the Pac-12. Oregon’s budget of $84.5 million is nearly triple that of Utah.

Closing the gap will not come overnight. Though sponsorship and fund-raising have gotten a boost, Utah will receive no TV money from the Pac-12 this season and will not receive a full share until 2014.

And if the renovation of the football offices sounds extravagant, it is quaint by current Pac-12 standards.

Consider that Cal and Washington are spending upward of $250 million renovating their football stadiums, UCLA is spending $136 million to modernize Pauley Pavilion and USC is sinking $70 million into a new athletic department complex.

“Right now we’re doing an analysis of who we are and what we are, bench-marking ourselves against Pac-10 (well, Pac-12) schools,” said Betz, who expects a new president will be in place next spring. “Some we fit in very well with. There are also some schools that would be a stretch for us to emulate. We’ll sit down with new president and talk about how we move forward.”

The role of outsider is one Utah plays comfortably. The Utes, until recently, have even been overshadowed in their own neighborhood by BYU. And, as with anyone trying to crash the BCS — Boise State and TCU included — doing more with less is part of the DNA.

First under Urban Meyer and then under Whittingham, the Utes have excelled at eyeing undervalued talent, then refining it. They have had 21 players drafted since 2005 (including former No. 1 overall pick Alex Smith), a number that is competitive with every Pac-12 school except USC.

On the field, the Utes have more than held their own. They are 7-3 against the Pac-10 since 2003, and there was their stunning rout of Alabama in the 2009 Suger Bowl, which capped an unbeaten season.

Davis, the new offensive line coach, was at USC when the Trojans won a share of a national championship, but he says there is a role model closer to home — BYU in the 1980s.

“A lot of people don’t know Utah, like they didn’t know about BYU until they started beating people on a national basis,” Davis said. “We’re going to be thrust into a spotlight and it’s a chance to make a first impression with a lot of people about who you are and how national can you get? How big can you get in your way of thinking?”

And yet, when they walk into the Coliseum on Saturday, and many other fields the rest of the season, they will not feel so big. It will not be hard to summon up the slights, to remind themselves that the other guys have more plush locker rooms, nicer stadiums and had little interest in recruiting them.

A motivator?

“Sure it is,” said Wynn, who will now be measured in a conference of quarterbacks, led by Stanford’s Andrew Luck, USC’s Matt Barkley, Arizona’s Nick Foles and Oregon’s Darron Thomas. “If you don’t get recruited, you remember that. There are a lot of good quarterbacks out there. I was undersized and Utah took a chance with me. I came in and worked hard, did what I needed to do, but it’s something that will definitely be in the back of my mind going into these games.”

The Utes have as their goal to win the South Division, which would put them in position to play for a berth in the Rose Bowl.

With USC banned from playing in a bowl, a kind schedule (the Utes do not play Oregon and Stanford) and a mediocre division, the South does appear wide open.

But the question is whether Utah, which Whittingham acknowledges might be a shade smaller, a step slower and a bit shallower across the board than most Pac-12 schools, can hold up week in and week out.

And so it may be wise to keep an eye on Wynn, whose performance suffered late last season as he played through shoulder and thumb injuries.

The question of whether Wynn can hold up to the pounding is one that, in another form, applies to the rest of the Utes.

Do they belong with the big boys?

“That’s a huge deal here,” Bergstrom said. “Everyone who comes in here, for the long time we’ve been fighting to get in, fighting to get in and now we’re in and we’re fighting to show we belong. It’s always been a fight to prove ourselves, to show we belong with these top teams. We’ve got the chance of a lifetime coming into the Pac-12. That’s what we’ve been working for for years. We just have to show we belong.”