Utah AD Mark Harlan is right to steer clear of Utah State (for now)

Utah AD Mark Harlan is right to steer clear of Utah State (for now)

Mountain West Football

Utah AD Mark Harlan is right to steer clear of Utah State (for now)


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Utah AD says scheduling USU not in the Utes’ best interest

The NCAA doesn’t know what to do with mid-majors, does it?

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Harlan doubles down on Utes “not running from anyone” while furiously spamming the close elevator button

University of Utah’s Mark Harlan is back on the Aggie faithful’s offseason hate-list this afternoon following the AD’s recent assertion that the Utes’ immediate plans won’t include a certain mid-major.

As reported by Deseret News’ Dirk Facer, Harlan followed up questions in regard to BYU’s annual spot on both the Utes’ basketball and football schedule with a quick note on Utah State —

“Utah State is interesting. John (Hartwell) and I have spoke recently. On this particular matter, we have some teams that play them. We have some teams that maybe don’t. If it’s in the best interest of the University of Utah to play Utah State, we’ll take a good look at it.”

While not a direct insult by any means, Harlan’s remarks are a window into the brokenness with which the NCAA willingly operates. Despite the natural competition such close proximity tends to foster (just try asking Twitter about the best QB in the state, see where that takes you), Harlan isn’t just allowed to ignore a potential geographical rival — it’s probably the most responsible thing he can do.

While Harlan famously “doesn’t run from anyone,” it’s no accident Utah State’s rise to relevance resulted in a Utah program with a lot to lose turning away from the true-blooded threat posed by their northern neighbor. More than any governing body in athletics, professional or otherwise, the NCAA rewards football and basketball programs according to the sheer quantity of their wins and the incalculable perception of their “quality” losses.

For as long as this criteria remains in place, there exists zero incentive for Utah to take on Utah State in what Harlan considers at best a so-so win, and at worse a loss that severely limits postseason plans.

Of course, this thinking is flawed to some degree. Even the most dutiful Ute fan knows Utah State wouldn’t have been the worst football team in the PAC12 last season, and that Neemias Queta is the most draft-ready hooper in the state. But that’s just how NCAA higher-ups view mid-majors — in the year of our Lord 2019 a program is still better off losing to Oregon State than a ranked Aggie squad boasting one of the nation’s best offenses. What can you do?

In an unfortunate display of solidarity with CFP committee voters (and various 12-follower Twitter accounts constantly fouling up my mentions), Harlan doesn’t see the potential for an instant-classic matchup against a team that spent the latter half of 2018-19 ranked within one spot of Utah in the national Top 25.

Harlan sees a business decision. The AD is essentially a highly paid risk/reward analyst who sees little incentive in wasting a valuable schedule spot on a regular visit to Logan, Utah.

And perhaps he has a point, though that does cast Harlan’s remarks on the BYU “rivalry” in a somewhat disingenuous light. Said Harlan on continuing to schedule BYU:

“…It makes sense to compete against BYU across a broad platform of our sports because of the interest in the state. I think under-reported is the relationship our student-athletes have with one another at the two institutions. They competed growing up. There’s — wait for it — friendships there and a real love of competition.”

Copy-paste this reasoning into an argument for an Aggie-Ute revival series and you’ve got compelling evidence that Harlan is really just more comfortable with BYU challenging for the in-state crown every year — and rightfully uncomfortable offering Utah State that same shot.

Which makes a lot of sense, considering USU finished last season with two teams ranked in the Top 25 while BYU’s last victory over Utah on the gridiron predates the theatrical release of Avatar.

This attitude also means Utah does (wisely) run from some teams, or at least stands pat and enjoys the good fortune afforded by the protective P5 umbrella. Taking advantage of college football’s mismanagement of mid-majors isn’t unique to the Harlan.

His prime responsibility is to pursue the interests of Utah athletics, and in the case of both football and hoops programs that means never overextending the confidence he no doubt puts in his athletic department to a position of weakness. It means beefing up schedules that maximize wins and minimize “bad losses” — and it means that if he can’t guarantee wins against in-state schools, he loses nothing by simply ignoring them.

So, why risk it?


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