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Pacific 12 Conference's newest members are worlds apart

Utah's football team was undefeated in 2004 and 2008 and brings cornerstone credibility. Colorado has lost 18 straight games outside the state but has rich history and more long-term upside.

August 20, 2011|Chris Dufresne
  • Utah, coached by Kyle Whittingham (right), is better than Jon Embree's Colorado team and might be two years from now -- but maybe not five years from now.
Utah, coached by Kyle Whittingham (right), is better than Jon Embree's… (Reed Saxon / Associated…)

The Pacific 10 (now 12) Conference is proud to welcome two new lodge members.

One program is disheveled, walks with a limp and wears its shirt tail out — the other is Utah.

One is a model of efficiency, efficacy and proficiency — and the other is Colorado.

Did the Pac-12 get better or get buffaloed?

At face, it's not even close. Utah brings cornerstone credibility. Shoot, since 2003, Utah has a 7-3 record against its new conference comrades.

The Utes flexed undefeated teams in 2004 and 2008, produced a No. 1 NFL pick in quarterback Alex Smith and a coach, Urban Meyer, who later won two national titles at Florida.

Utah ventured to New Orleans one year and capped a 13-0 season in the Sugar Bowl by striking a sweet-and-low blow to Alabama, a Southeastern Conference team coached by Nick Saban.

One-loss Florida won the national title that year. Some people thought Utah should have won and, the next year, Alabama did win it.

Utah's eight-year coaching combination of Meyer and Kyle Whittingham has gone 79-20.

And then there's the "Boulder Boys." Wow, what can you say …

How about that ski team?

Picked to finish last in its first year, Colorado couldn't dig any deeper into the Pac-12 South Division. Cooking instructions on the back of the box: "For best first-year results, combine flour, water and your roster with Washington State's."

Colorado has a new coach, Jon Embree, because its last coach, Dan Hawkins, couldn't squeeze a drop of water out of Boulder. He was 19-38 after taking over for Gary Barnett, fired in 2005 after he lost to Texas, 70-3.

The Hawkins era began with an epic home loss to Montana State, and Colorado has currently lost 18 straight games outside of the state.

"Good teams win on the road," Embree stated emphatically in July at his first Pac-12 Media Day. "Obviously we haven't been a good team or I wouldn't be here."

See where this is going?

Probably not, because here's the bait-and-switch:

Colorado, not Utah, has more long-term upside. It has rich history, is a better academic fit, and has been galvanized by playing Texas, Nebraska and Oklahoma in the Big 12.

The Pac-10 had its eye on Colorado years ago but couldn't pry Texas out of its contract with political cronies.

UCLA Coach Rick Neuheisel was Colorado's coach in 1995 when expansion rumors were swirling. "I was so gung-ho for it," he recalled. "Having coached there, I know that California recruiting is vital to their success … so it will be great for them."

Colorado, a long time ago, played top-notched football. Ever hear of Byron "Whizzer" White?

Forget Paul, though. Kids these days aren't old enough to remember Bill McCartney.

Colorado, in 1990, led by McCartney — Bill — won the Associated Press national title. The Buffaloes were all stars and swagger. Colorado heritage boasts Rashaan Salaam, the Heisman Trophy winner of 1994, and "Ralphie," one of college's top, rip-snorting mascots.

Embree hasn't been a head coach, but he's a former Colorado player and UCLA assistant. His offensive coordinator is Eric Bieniemy, a former Colorado tailback who is a tenacious recruiter of Los Angeles-based football prospects.

"It helps us a lot being able to come back here every year," Embree said of what will be annual trips to USC or UCLA. "We have to get to where we're recruiting this state effectively again."

Utah enters the Pac-12 to settle a bar bet. A lot of folks say great programs from non-power leagues could never contend if they played in "gantlet" conferences.

Utah completed a perfect season in 2008 by defeating an SEC team. But, skeptics asked, what if it had to play in the SEC, or the Pac-10?

"We have had a pretty good track record against BCS schools over the last 10 years," Whittingham said. "We've fared pretty well. It is a little different ballgame playing them week in and week out."

Utah makes its Pac-12 debut at USC on Sept. 10.

"Baptism by fire," Whittingham called it.

Utah actually receives a housewarming present, missing Stanford and Oregon this year while getting Arizona State in Salt Lake City.

Still, Utah's depth will be tested in a gnarly stretch: USC, Brigham Young, Washington, Arizona State, Pittsburgh, California, Oregon State and Arizona.

Is Utah ready?

"We'll have a better answer for you in about four months," Whittingham said.

This lab experiment will play over time. Utah is better than Colorado and might be two years from now — but maybe not five years from now.

Colorado faces its 19th straight out-of-state defeat with its opener at Hawaii. Embree can't wait. "We need to address that issue immediately," he said of his team's road woes. "I'll leave it at that … It does not sit well with me."

Colorado makes its Pac-12 debut in Boulder against California, which pounded the Buffaloes, 52-7, last year in Berkeley.

Things eventually will get turned around.

For now, though, enjoy Utah football. And Colorado's downhill team.

chris.dufresne@latimes.com

twitter.com/dufresnelatimes

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