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Utah is the Most Interesting Team of 2011

We've all heard, if not participated in, the argument before: could a team from the best of the non-AQ ranks really survive or even succeed in a Big Six conference?

Utah, Boise State, and TCU have proven that they can win a given game over the best of the BCS conferences. Collectively, they own wins over a Big East champ, Big 12 champ, Pac-10 champ, otherwise 11-1 Big Ten team and otherwise 12-1 SEC team. There is no doubt that on any given day, the cream of the non-AQ crop can win individual high quality games.

The question is whether those teams could survive the grind of being in a Big Six conference. Top-to-bottom, BCS conference teams have bigger and faster players who hit harder than those in the WAC and MWC. Team depth is a major concern thanks to the injuries that tend to pile up over a season. Not only that, but the AQ leagues have better coaches, and team weaknesses can be better identified if a different high quality coaching staff is exposing a different one each week. It's much more difficult to pick out the weaknesses of a team that wins nine or 10 of its games by blowouts.

Utah is the first test case of a non-AQ team joining a power conference since three CUSA teams joined the Big East. However the Pac-12 is better than the Big East was back then, and Utah has been a better program prior to entry than USF, Cincinnati and Louisville were prior to their call up to the big leagues. It's true that TCU is joining the Big East next year, but again, it's not the same.

Unfortunately, the schedule makers treated the Utes with kid gloves. They're already in what will be the weaker of the two divisions this year, and they missed both Oregon and Stanford from the North division. A pair of decent non-conference road games at BYU and at Pitt help ratchet up the degree of difficulty, but that really is no substitute for facing the Ducks or Cardinal. Instead they drew a pair of solid yet unspectacular teams in Cal and Oregon State along with mediocre-at-best Colorado Washington and dreadful Washington State from the North division.

If the preseason consensus is to be believed, Utah must make sure it finishes ahead of Arizona State to go to the Pac-12 Championship Game. USC is a popular pick to finish first, but its postseason ban includes conference title games. Utah making that contest would be perhaps the best way to test out the "non-AQ teams can't survive the grind" hypothesis, because it would face a likely top-10 team in Oregon or Stanford after a full season of beating rather than in September or after a month's worth of pre-bowl rest.

Utah is returning just 12 starters (by Phil Steele's count), and both of last year's top rushers who lead the team by a mile are gone. Dealing with personnel turnover is a fact of life in all levels of football though. This team is our best chance to see what happens when you take a high-end MWC team and drop it into a BCS league.

That is, until we see which non-AQ schools the Big 12 replaces Texas A&M with.