The State of Utah is currently enjoying unprecedented success and exposure this college football season. Its two major college football programs, BYU (4-0) and the University of Utah (5-0), are both off to an undefeated start and seem to be on a collision course for a major showdown at the end of the regular season.
This is big-time stuff for a relatively sparsely populated state in the landlocked inter-mountain west.
But hold on just a minute...did I just say two major college football programs? Isn't there a third D-I team in the state of Utah?
Oh yeah, there is the matter of one Utah State University—member of the WAC and perennial doormat. It's easy to forget sometimes with a combined record of 12-46 over the past five seasons and not looking much better this season.
A look around the geographic landscape of D-I college football reveals some interesting tidbits about the relationship of population and geography to the success of a program.
The fact that Utah, 34th in population (source: 2000 U.S. Census), supports two competitive D-I teams that are ranked and not part of the BCS is incredible. However, some of that can be chalked up to the fact that BYU is a unique institution that recruits nationally from a different pool of players, somewhat like the military academies.
Where does that leave a program like Utah State? Locally, the top recruits are either signing with BYU, Utah, or even heading out of state. Unfortunately, Utah State is left with a lower caliber of recruit locally and must find talent through other sources out of state or through the JC ranks.
Recruiting is often referred to as the "lifeblood" of college football, and with that local talent pool dried up by the time Utah State takes a drink, it's hard to imagine this program ever being competitive.
Let's take a look at the map above. No other state the size of Utah (population-wise) supports more than two D-I schools. (see map above)
As a comparison, Utah is ranked 34th in population, followed by Nevada, New Mexico, West Virginia, Nebraska, Idaho, and Maine.
Each of these states, except for Nebraska and Maine, only has only two D-I football programs. Nebraska has one and Maine none. Even states like Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Missouri only have one (all ranked 21st or above in population).
There is a reason for this: The population cannot support more than two teams. They don't have the population, demographic, or monetary makeup to fuel a major college football program.
In earlier times, a program like Utah State could be competitive. BYU wasn't the regional or national power that it is today. Utah was inconsistent. There was still a niche for a team like the Aggies.
Utah State has produced several NFL players, but they are the rare exceptions. Many DI-AA (FCS) teams do the same. However, times have changed: There were fewer teams throughout the land competing at the D-I level in years past.
A look at today's college football landscape paints a different picture. Here's a look at the team distribution:
Div. I-A (FBS): 119 teams
Div. I-AA (FCS): 116 teams
Div. II: 156 teams
Div. III: 234 teams
119 teams compete at the D-I level today. Many, including myself, think that number is way too high.
A number of teams have moved up to the D-I level, but few have done it with a great degree of success. For every South Florida and Boise State, there is a Louisiana-Monroe or Idaho. Too many teams compete at this level, diluting schedules and competitiveness.
Utah State and other programs like them are likely to continue mired in their current state. There isn't enough local talent to support another D-I school in the state of Utah. Their best option would be to move down to the FCS level so their program could once again be competitive.
Another option would be to follow the lead of their former Big West competitors like Long Beach State and disband the program altogether. It's a radical move to be sure, but considering their distinct lack of success, something has to give.
The writing is on the wall and has been for the past 30 years.