Jan. 16, 2009

By Adam Caparell

Undefeated seasons are pretty special in college football, and it today’s game, they’re getting rarer by the year. So you couldn’t fault Utah and head coach Kyle Whittingham if they felt a little bitter for going 13-0 and receiving nothing more than a pat on the back.

“We’re looking at the positive side of things,” Whittingham said.

Give Whittingham and his team credit because it would be pretty easy for them to look at the negative side of things these days. All Utah did was finish the regular season 12-0, take care of business in the Sugar Bowl, finish the year as the nation’s only undefeated team – a perfect 13-0 – and never get a chance to compete for a BCS Championship.

"We feel we can play with anybody in the country. We didn't have that opportunity to prove it in the end."
Utah Coach
Kyle Whittingham

“Bitterness is not the right word,” Whittingham said.

Utah did everything it could to throw its hat into the ring of national title contenders this season, beating the likes of Oregon State, TCU and BYU, winning the Mountain West Conference, the same Mountain West that went 6-1 against the Pac-10 this season.

But the way the current system in college football is set up, teams like Utah, who find themselves in a conference not affiliated with the BCS, are at a distinct disadvantage. It would take very special circumstances for a team like Utah to ever find itself in the BCS Championship, for a multitude of reasons, but there’s not much they can do about the handicap. That’s life when you’re a non-BCS member. The BCS was agreed upon by all, so complaining nets you very few sympathizers these days.

“We’ve talked about it all season long as a football team that we only worry about what we can control and that’s going out and playing our best football each and every week,” Whittingham said. “The word ‘national champions’ is really a relative term. It’s an opinion and until there’s a playoff system that’s what it’s going to be.”

The BCS is synonymous with controversy and during its 11-year history it has rarely left everyone satisfied at the end of the season. Calls for a playoff have always echoed throughout the game, but those calls were never louder than this past bowl season when teams like USC, Texas and Utah all made claims to being deserving of finishing the year No. 1. Or least getting a shot to finish No. 1. 

As it was, Florida won the BCS Championship over Oklahoma and finished atop both the Coaches and AP polls. But that wasn’t without its share of controversy as well.

Utah garnered 16 first place votes in the final AP Top 25 and one first place vote in the final Coaches poll. The 16 AP votes should not have come as much of a surprise. Members of the media can vote for whoever they want and they did, even giving USC a first place vote. But the coaches are obligated to vote for the BCS champion and one of them did not.

“I did indeed vote us No. 1. That’s what I said I was going to do and that’s what I did,” Whittingham said. “What ramifications will come of that I don’t know? I’m not really overly concerned. My main concern is our players, our football team. I did what I thought was right in respect to that.”

The Utes finished the year with their highest ranking ever in either poll – a nice consolation prize for sure – but not what Whittingham or his players ideally wanted. 

They wanted to settle it on the field. They wanted a shot. Just like USC and Texas.

“We feel we can play with anybody in the country,” Whittingham said. “We didn’t have that opportunity to prove it in the end.”

Through this whole thing, it’s no surprise that Whittingham has become a playoff proponent. He has no idea how it would work or if it could ever come about, but all he knows is that what’s in place right now doesn’t serve the greater good.

“Fair is a relative term,” Whittingham said. “I think the only way to make it completely fair is to have a playoff system in place. And even then if you have a 12-team system the 13th team will think it’s unfair. I don’t know if you can ever please everybody.”

Whittingham may sound a little jaded, but don’t think for a minute he’s not ecstatic over the perfect season. Utah has already started to reap the rewards of 13-0. Donations to the program should reach record levels this off-season, interest in the school has never been higher from prospective players and recruits for the class of 2009 have already verbally committed. And the best is yet to come.

Whittingham feels that the program won’t truly reap the benefits of 2008 for another couple of seasons. That was case in 2004 when Whittingham was Utah’s defensive coordinator on the Fiesta Bowl-winning team.

“It’ll have long-term effects,” Whittingham said. “The ensuing next couple of years we really felt (the effects). With recruiting being as accelerated as it is and everyone making early commitments, we’re thinking this victory and the season that we had will really impact the next two or three recruiting seasons rather than this one.”

And the Utes’ 2008 season could potentially have major BCS ramifications, as well. BCS coordinator John Swofford recently announced that each member conference will go through a four year evaluation period to see if they’re worthy of retaining their automatic entry into the series. Also up for discussion could be the addition of another conference as an automatic qualifier.

That bodes well for Utah and the MWC.

“I would certainly think we’d have to be at the top of the list for that seventh conference,” Whittingham said.

“We’re looking at this season as positive. There is a little bit of disappointment, but we’ve made huge inroads not only as a program, but as a conference.”

So don’t get the wrong impression about the Utes. There’s no bitterness in Utah. Whittingham’s got that glass-half-full mentality working right now because when you finish the year 13-0, let’s face it, it’s tough to be bitter about your season.