Monson: Only a Utes win can justify non-BCS teams
Now, the work and the worry really begins.
Utah football reaped what it sowed in 2008, beating all comers, such as they were, and qualifying for what turned out to be the Sugar Bowl, putting its program on the brink of broad national respect.
But, in 2009, on Jan. 2, there's a flipside to that respect: embarrassment.
The Utes will lay all that out on the table against Alabama, and hope what's gone before and what's within their reach now isn't squandered, and thrown back in their mug.
High risk. High reward. High drama. High stakes. High pressure. High Noon. Hi, how are ya?
For their sakes, the Utes had better be great.
Because there's more.
Through no fault of their own, other than being unbeaten this season, the Utes find themselves carrying more than their own fate with them to New Orleans. They are hauling the credibility of all non-BCS teams, all the programs that, in some sense or another, are doubted and given dubious looks not only by established teams from power leagues, but by college football fans across the country.
What Utah has accomplished heretofore, then, its 12-0 record, its conference championship, even its previous BCS bowl win over a so-so Pitt team, is condescendingly patted on the head and explained away as being good for who it's for: the little guys.
Now, the Utes have to play Big Boy football -- for themselves and their ilk.
And if they don't show well, especially after Hawaii's gargantuan loss to Georgia a year ago, it might have been better -- aside from the financials, of course -- for them not to have put themselves in this position in the first place.
That may be unfair, but it's real.
If Utah gets blown out, it will be a laughingstock, it will be a punchline, it will confirm in every college football snob's mind what he or she already suspects: 12-0 outside the SEC or the Big 12 or the Big Ten doesn't mean squat.
Never mind that the ugly end of lopsidedness also happens to BCS teams -- ask Ohio State -- in big bowls, and they are more quickly forgotten and forgiven for having an "off" game.
If the Utes fall hard to the Crimson Tide, they will be ripped and remembered for having an "off" existence.
That's the curse of playing in the Mountain West, even in a year in which the league put a beatdown on the Pac-10 and featured three relatively highly ranked teams.
It's not enough for Utah, or any strong non-BCS outfit, to beat moderate or bad teams from good leagues, or even to beat good teams inside its own league. It must beat good teams from good leagues on the rare occasions that opportunity arises for the current perception to change.
And if the Utes don't do that, they will be put straight back on the shelf, along with all the guilty by association, patted right back on the head, scootched right back in the britches and sent on their way as a nice little program that doesn't belong among the best of the best.
Losing big to the Tide would bring shame and scorn. Losing in a tight game would earn a bit of respect, but carry no lasting impact. Winning against this caliber of competition, in this setting, is the only thing that will start to change minds.
So, that is the cold wind, the cold reality into which the Utes now walk.
They rightfully celebrated on Sunday night when the announcement was made that they were headed to the Sugar Bowl to play Alabama. Placed in that blessed/cursed position, though, they take with them their heavy burden, and face now a difficult task.
What they've done in the past -- all those wins against no losses -- counts and matters almost not at all. In fact, it condemns them even more if they blow it now.
High stakes, high pressure, high risk, indeed. Hi, how are ya?
Maybe the Utes are great, because, good thing for them, the reward is just as high.
GORDON MONSON hosts "The Monson and Graham Show" weekdays from 2-6 p.m. on 1280 AM The Zone. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.