Chris Dufresne’s preseason college football top 25: No. 23 Utah

The Times’ Chris Dufresne unveils his preseason college football top 25, one day (and team) at a time.

No. 23 Utah

Utah had a dream decade — highlighted by undefeated seasons in 2004 and 2008 and we’ll-never-know discussions about whether the Utes warranted national title consideration.

It was a worthy argument, especially after Utah’s emphatic Sugar Bowl victory over Alabama, which won the national title the next year.

Utah didn’t qualify for the Bowl Championship Series title game in 2008 but finished No. 2 in the final Associated Press poll.

Politicians such as Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) jumped on the Utes as Exhibit U as to why the Bowl Championship Series was a monopoly — dominated by “privileged” conferences — and should be replaced by a playoff.

Guess what? Utah, starting next season, steps up to the privileged Pacific 10 Conference.

Where’s your antitrust suit now?

With no playoff in the immediate offing, Utah will soon provide the test case a lot of us have been eagerly awaiting.

The argument that Utah didn’t deserve a national title shot in 2004 and ’08, and that Boise State didn’t deserve it last year, boiled down to the level of competition those schools faced week in and week out in weaker conferences.

Utah could ramp it up for one game against Alabama, sure, but could it possibly have gone undefeated in the Southeastern Conference?

No way.

Utah has enjoyed stick-it-in-your-face success against the Pac-10, going 2-0 against the league in 2003, thrashing UCLA in 2007 and beating California in last year’s Poinsettia Bowl.

But what’s it going to be like playing nine Pac-10 teams every year?

Utah Coach Kyle Whittingham recently said he “will not make any further comment regarding Utah’s move to the Pac-10 until the season is over.”

Truth is, this may be Utah’s last best-shot season for a BCS game in a while. Coming off a 10-3 year, returning up-and-coming quarterback Jordan Wynn and star running backs Eddie Wide and Matt Asiata, the Utes can be expected to be 10-win good in their last season in the Mountain West Conference.

The nonconference schedule is challenging, with a home opener against Pittsburgh and a November trip to Notre Dame, but the middle portion is softer. If Utah can handle Pitt at home, there’s a chance it could be 8-0 when Texas Christian comes to Salt Lake City on Nov. 6.

No one knows what’s going to happen in 2011 when Utah and Colorado join to make it the Pac-12, but it’s not a stretch to suggest it will be harder for the Utes to make BCS bowls.

Shoot, it’s tough enough for Pac-10 schools — the conference has earned only two at-large bids in 12 years.

The upside for Utah is the champion of the Pac-12 has a much better chance of getting to the BCS title party.

Changing conferences may have been a no-brainer, but there are things to think about.

Utah might want to make its last year in the Mountain West count.

The countdown so far: 25. Washington; 24. Navy; 23. Utah.