Six years ago, to most Pac 10 fans, Utah and Colorado were skiing destinations--not threats to win an auto bid to the Rose Bowl.
I don’t know where to begin trying to explain this week's Pac 12 standings, but let’s try January of 2011. Auburn had just defeated Oregon, 22-19, on a last second field goal to win the BCS national title.
Oregon Coach Chip Kelly said on the field after that loss, in Arizona, “We’ll be back.”
Oregon would, Kelly wouldn’t.
There was a lot to imagine back then about where the Pac 10 was going. The future, other than USC being on NCAA probation, seemed bright enough.
What could not be fathomed was a time machine flash-forward in which, in late October of 2016, something called the Pac 12 South division would be led by Utah and Colorado.
Yet, here we are, and it’s mind-boggling.
First, that it ever had a snowball's chance of happening.[membership level="0"] The rest of this article is available to subscribers only - to become a subscriber click here.[/membership] [membership]
The Pac 10 had played “footsie” with Colorado in the 1990s as part of an expansion plan with Texas. But it was mostly a dream.
In spring of 2011, however, the college football landscape was blowing apart.
Looking for a big shakeup, new Pac 10 commissioner Larry Scott made a huge play to raid the Big 12 and become the Pac 16.
So, again, how did that involve Utah, which was in the Mountain West?
In a crazy span of days, weeks and 11th hours, Scott invited Colorado to the conference in anticipation of adding five other Big 12 schools, including Texas and Oklahoma.
The league was, officially, at one time, the Pac-11.
And then the Big 12 deal collapsed over Texas.
Scott suddenly needed another school to fill out “Plan B,” which was a 12-team league with two divisions.
He almost literally looked at map of the Western U.S. and said, “You, Utah.”
The Utes hit the lottery. I called them the “Ringo” in the sense they were in the right place at the right time.
Many Utah fans hated the analogy, even though it wasn’t an insult to Ringo or Salt Lake City.
Colorado and Utah came aboard in 2011 and were supposed to quietly pay their dues in this mighty new configuration.
Utah was in much better shape as a football program, but I always thought Colorado was the better, long-term fit for the Pac—athletically, culturally and academically.
Colorado, though, entered the Pac mired in a tailspin that started with a 70-3 loss to Texas in the 2005 Big 12 title game. Utah was not that far removed from the glory of Urban Meyer and later, a Sugar Bowl win over Alabama.
So, flash forward to now: Utah and Colorado are tied for first.
Consider: there are only three Pac 12 schools ranked in this week’s AP poll, and two of them weren’t in the league six years ago.
Washington is a huge story in the North Division, sitting at 7-0 and No. 4 in both polls, but what’s happening in the South is equally remarkable.
Colorado, which won five conference games in its first five seasons, is 3-1 in the division. And Utah can already claim the title of Los Angeles City champions with victories over USC and UCLA.
Colorado, 0-9 in league play only two years ago, controls its destiny to the Pac 12 title game.
“We rose from the ashes,” Coach Mike MacIntyre says. “We did.”
The South title may be decided Nov. 26 when Colorado plays at Utah.
This is really happening.
Colorado just defeated Stanford at Stanford, while Utah outlandishly outlasted UCLA, at the Rose Bowl.
The Pac 12's power schools—UCLA, USC, Stanford and Oregon—have 16 combined losses.
Utah and Colorado have combined for three.
Utah would be undefeated if not for being stopped on a goal-line stand at Cal. Colorado’s two losses were at Michigan and USC. The Buffs led Jim Harbaugh’s team, 21-7, and might have won had quarterback Sefo Lifau not had to have left the game with an injury in the second half.
Colorado has a bye this week then hosts UCLA, plays at Arizona, then closes at home against Washington State and Utah.
MacIntyre said he knew this summer his team was ready, finally, to compete for the conference title.
“Nobody in the world believed me, except for my wife,” MacIntyre said after Saturday’s 10-5 win over defending Rose Bowl champion Stanford. “I don’t think all the players in the room believed it when I said it. But now they do.”
The “expansion twins” may not be finished yet.
Utah, ranked No. 17 in the AP, can threaten the top 10 with a home win against Washington this week in Salt Lake City.
No one in the old Pac 8 could have made this up while tripping on LSD in Tim Leary's Berkeley.
Some wondered if Colorado could ever be football good again.
Utah was a “happy accident” emanating from a commissioner’s master plan gone wrong.
It never should have worked out this way yet, for these two schools, it couldn't have worked out better.[/membership]