Jan. 2, 2009

By Adam Caparell

Utah is all too familiar with its role heading into the Sugar Bowl.

The Mountain West Conference champion will play the little guy to Alabama’s big guy when the two teams meet in the Superdome on Friday night in the latest BCS bowl crash by the Utes. It’s a role they’ve come to play multiple times a year and it’s one that no other team in the country seems to play as well.

But the rash of recent non-BCS teams finding their way to college football’s highest-profile games has Utah wearing a decidedly different hat than the one it’s become used to.

When Utah became the first non-BCS team to make a BCS bowl back in 2004, when Urban Meyer led the Utes to a rousing win over Pittsburgh in the Fiesta Bowl, Utah’s presence in the game was considered nothing more than a novelty.

But times have changed and this season marks the third straight year that a non-BCS school finds itself in a BCS game. So naturally, Utah feels the need to pick right up where Boise State left off two years ago after Hawaii’s 41-10 loss to Georgia last year, right?


The thought that Utah is playing for all the underdogs of college football in the Sugar Bowl is more than a little presumptuous, if you ask Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. In reality, you’ll have to excuse the Utes for being slightly selfish this past month because, quite frankly, they couldn’t care less about the carrying that proverbial torch for all the little guys – a torch that isn’t burning as brightly after Hawaii’s resounding defeat at the hands of Georgia in the 2008 Sugar Bowl.

"That's a natural comparison or a natural dynamic of the game,” Whittingham said. “Each game and each matchup has its own unique circumstances. I don't think there is a lot of bearing on this based on what happened last year. Obviously we want to play well, that's the most important thing. We have to go out and play well and be competitive and represent our conference and the University of Utah. What happened to Hawaii was a situation that we don't feel we are carrying a torch for."

Hawaii came into last year’s Sugar Bowl with a heck of a lot more hype than Utah brings into this year’s version. The Utes, because they don’t do it with a ton of flash, and don’t really have any household names on the roster, just crept up the BCS standings this year until they found themselves BCS-bound when it was all said and done.

The reward for a perfect season is a matchup with the Crimson Tide who just happened to be a quarter away from a perfect season and a spot in the BCS Championship game. The team that spent more time at No. 1 than any other in the country this season brings its extremely physical play to New Orleans in front of what is expected to be a decidedly pro-Alabama crowd in the Crescent City.

That sounds a lot like the situation Hawaii found itself in last year. A very physical and talented Georgia team, considered to be one of the best by season’s end, awaited the Warriors in the Sugar Bowl and few gave the long distant visitors any shot at winning.

And this year, few, if any, think Utah has what it takes to knock off Nick Saban’s rejuvenated Crimson Tide.

"Well you know our guys are . . . I don't want to say they have a chip on shoulder, but we are excited to be here, like I said. We don't have aspirations that we should be in the big one or anything. We are excited about the opportunity that's in front of us,” Whittingham said, “All you can do is worry about what you can control, that was to play our best football each and every week for 12 straight weeks."

Utah isn’t in the Sugar Bowl by accident. Beating Oregon State, TCU and BYU, along with the rest of a tough MWC schedule, showed that Utah was worthy of an automatic berth into the BCS. The Utes may not have the kind of marquee wins that Alabama does, and they certainly don’t have a high profile like the Tide, but at least one well-regarded observer of both teams doesn’t expect to see a repeat of last year’s 41-10 Sugar Bowl rout.  

Meyer did some great things during his brief time at Utah and he still keeps tabs on the Utes. Whittingham was his defensive coordinator and the two talk on a fairly regular basis. Meyer’s also well-versed on the subject of Alabama, especially after his Gators took out the Tide in the SEC Championship game. So Meyer was asked about a month ago just what kind of game he was expecting between Utah and Alabama. And what he said may surprise some.

“The difference between Utah and Alabama is not so much the first team players, it’s the depth,” Meyer said. “As long as (Utah) can stay healthy and get their guys ready to go I think it’ll be a very competitive game. Two very strong defenses playing.”

Playing the role of near-equal to a BCS school is something new for Utah. And for a team that wasn’t expected to be where it is at the end of this season, maybe it’s only fitting that the Utes are wearing a different hat than Boise State, Hawaii and even that ’04 Utah team did.

Maybe the little guy isn’t so little after all. And his prerogative definitely isn’t what it used to be.