Saturday's game with Brigham Young at Rice-Eccles Stadium will determine whether the Utes play in a lucrative Bowl Championship Series game or a lower-tier event such as the Poinsettia Bowl in San Diego that would barely cover the school's travel expenses.
"If people think of it as a money thing, that's a shame," said Utah athletic director Chris Hill. "We want to win very badly, and I don't think it's for the money. It's for a conference championship and ownership of the state. . . . Nothing is going to make you want to win more."
Yet with an athletic budget of $26 million, Hill obviously would welcome the big check. Published payouts of $17 million per team for a BCS game are somewhat deceiving. Utah would share its revenue with fellow Mountain West Conference members and with other conferences that lack guaranteed BCS invitations for their champions.
Judging by BCS payouts to Boise State and Hawaii the past two years, Utah could expect to make about $4.5 million. The Poinsettia Bowl, in contrast, pays $750,000.
It is the reality of a system that provides automatic access to the five big-money bowls only for the winners of six elite conferences. One berth is reserved for an outsider, requiring a top-12 finish in the BCS standings, based on polls and computer ratings. Utah (11-0) is No. 7, Boise State (10-0) of the Western Athletic Conference is No. 9 and BYU (10-1) is No. 14.
Besides beating Nevada and Fresno State in its last two games, Boise State must hope for a BYU victory. In all likelihood, the Cougars would not jump over BSU or receive an at-large BCS bid, even though teams in the top 14 are eligible for selection.
Utah, which four years ago became the first "BCS-busting" school and defeated Pittsburgh in the Fiesta Bowl, has the only clear path. In 2004, the Utes completed an unbeaten regular season with a 52-21 win over BYU.
Recent results suggest this game will be much closer. Each of the past three years, the outcome was decided by a pass into the end zone on the game's final play. So that $4.5 million could be sailing toward a receiver's waiting hands Saturday night.
"We can't think about all that outside stuff, but it's a lot of money that could be going to this university and do some good," said Utah linebacker Stevenson Sylvester.
The NCAA basketball tournament revenue formula was changed nearly 20 years ago to eliminate what was labeled "the $300,000 free throw" and reduce the pressure on the players, but Mountain West commissioner Craig Thompson does not believe athletes concern themselves with their schools' financial stakes.
"For them, it's just kids playing football," he said. "They want to play in a BCS game."
As Hill pointed out, the annual rivalry game provides sufficient incentive any year, and the potential BCS opportunity only enhances Utah's bid for an outright conference title and two-time defending champion BYU's effort to share it.
* LYA WODRASKA contributed to this story.