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February 18, 2012
There has been only one downside at Utah since the school accepted an invitation to join the Pac-12: Its campus may no longer be the best-kept secret in college football.
Since Utah joined the conference in 2010, more top-rated recruits than ever have been willing to visit the Salt Lake City campus. The recruits clearly have like what they've seen and have been committing at a higher rate than ever.
Such success is no surprise to head coach Kyle Whittingham.
"If we can get the athlete on campus, we feel we have a great chance of getting him to commit because of what we have to offer," Whittingham said.
Previously, Utah's recruiting classes typically were not ranked among the nation's top 50. But after receiving the Pac-12 invitation, Utah's 2011 class was ranked 37th. This year's class was ranked 28th and a respectable third in the Pac-12 South Division.
It's not a coincidence.
"I guess to start you go back to when we were first invited in June of 2010," Whittingham said. "It was immediate the difference in the way recruits perceived us. Within 10 days of the announcement of the invitation we had seven verbal commitments that I'm very confident we would not have gotten had we not had the Pac-12 and BCS affiliation. That's when it started.
"We still were not officially in the Pac-12, but we saw a spike. This year after playing in the Pac-12 we saw another spike. It's something that's been building the last couple of years. I hope the upward trend continues. We feel very good about our classes the last couple of years. Without a doubt the Pac-12 affiliation helped us."
Just ask Chase Hansen of Highland (Utah) Lone Peak.
"A lot of people assumed BYU or even Stanford was where I should go or I should be," he told UteZone.com. "I was up at Utah for a couple days and I visited with them a while back and there is nothing like the coaching staff, the excitement up there, the direction they're heading not only with the Pac-12 but the university in general. I felt like it was perfect for me."
[ More Utah: UteZone.com ]
Hanson, the No. 20 ranked athlete in the Class of 2012, was one of five four-star prospects Utah signed this year. It has signed seven four-stars in the last two classes after signing a total of only 10 four-star prospects in nine years from 2002 to 2010.
That further illustrates the disadvantage programs outside the BCS automatic qualifiers face. Not only do those teams have to go undefeated to get into a BCS bowl, but it makes it harder for them to assemble competitive recruiting classes.
Other programs that have moved into AQ conferences have gotten boosts in recruiting, too.
As a member of Conference USA, Louisville's recruiting classes were not ranked among the nation's top 50. After one season in the Big East Louisville's 2006 class was ranked 34th.
Until TCU accepted an invitation in 2010 to join the Big East (and later switched to the Big 12) its highest-rated recruiting class was 46th. TCU's 2011 class was ranked 26th and its 2012 class was 37th.
Though higher-ranked recruiting classes don't necessary guarantee success, they do enhance the chances of adding talent and depth.
Utah has had good front line talent, which it has displayed in the past with five seasons of at least 10 wins since 2003, undefeated seasons in '04 and '08 and BCS bowl victories over Pittsburgh and Alabama.
However, Whittingham was concerned whether the Utes had sufficient depth to compete at a high level in the Pac-12. Those concerns proved legitimate. The Utes were 4-5 in conference play, but they were competitive.
"We feel we've taken big steps in that direction," Whittingham said. "We still have a ways to go. But I don't know if there are a lot of teams in the country that say, 'our roster has enough depth and we're good.' There are a handful of schools that can say that. For the rest of us, it's a process and a constant point of emphasis that we continue to recruit well."
Though Utah did endure some bad losses in its first Pac-12 season, the Utes lost by three points to USC when a last-play field goal was blocked. They also would have reached the Pac-12 championship game if not for an upset loss to Colorado in the regular-season finale.
If they continue to upgrade their talent and depth, Whittingham is optimistic they will be even more competitive in the future.
"There were a lot of unknowns going into last season," he said. "Of course, we did our homework and got that part taken care of, but you never have a feel for a team until you see them live and play them.
"It was certainly a learning experience for us. I think we made a good transition to the league. I'm not saying it was a great season, because it wasn't; but we competed and were one game away from playing in the Pac-12 championship game. I think we proved we belong. We are also aware it's a great league and very competitive. We have our work cut out for us, but we have a chance to get to a point where we can win it."