NEW ORLEANS » Outside Utah's team hotel on Canal Street, stores sell shirts and hats that tout the Sugar Bowl matchup between the SEC's Alabama and the WAC's Utah. Inside the press conferences, Utah's players are asked on a daily basis what makes them different from Hawaii, which was shellacked in this bowl game a year ago.
Meanwhile, less informed folks from Louisiana ask if Utah State, the team they think is playing in the Sugar Bowl, is located in Provo.
Clearly, being the only undefeated team in Division I-A football or the first non-BCS team to go to a BCS bowl twice hasn't been enough to earn the Utes or the Mountain West Conference the national recognition they expect. Clearly the Utes have to beat Alabama on Friday in the Sugar Bowl to get it. Of course, even that might not do it, given how little the Utes are in the national perspective when it comes to football.
The last time the Utes were in a BCS bowl, they did what was expected and beat Pitt 35-7 in the 2005 Fiesta Bowl. This time, few expect the Utes (12-0) to win, even though at No. 7 in the Associated Press poll they aren't ranked much lower than No. 4 Alabama (12-1).
If the 10-point underdog Utes can lose respectably to Alabama and avoid being a repeat of Hawaii, which lost to Georgia 41-10 a year ago here, some might see the outcome as a victory of sorts for the Utes.
The Utes aren't interested in that kind of performance though. They want, and to a certain extent expect, a win. They've gotten this far and they aren't here just to be the kind of team happy with a close loss or satisfied with making it to a big bowl game. They want that Sugar Bowl trophy, too.
"Without question, this is the best opponent and matchup we've had in 100 years of football," quarterback Brian Johnson said. "Everything you dream for is there in front of you to put yourself in the history books."
To do that, the Utes know there are technicalities to take care of, such as containing Alabama running back Glen Coffee, denying receiver Julio Jones of big plays and holding up well against Alabama's big lines. All of those tasks can be done successfully, the Utes believe. They also think they have the intangibles necessary, such as focus and enough confidence overcome anything Alabama might give them.
"We're not intimidated by any means," linebacker Mike Wright said. "We know what we are up against, but we aren't intimidated. We understand what we can do and we are looking forward to it."
The knock against Hawaii last year was its soft schedule. It won the WAC, but wasn't prepared for the speed and physical nature of a big-time opponent.
Alabama might be from the SEC like Georgia was, but the Utes point to their close wins over TCU and Oregon State as evidence they are just as good.
"We're clearly better than Hawaii was last year," Johnson said. "Both being non-BCS schools, that is where the comparisons start and end."
At this point, the Utes aren't too concerned with gaining respect. They figure if they don't have it by now, they may never get it.
"It's what everybody says every year," running back Matt Asiata said. "'What's Utah? Who is Utah? What's a Ute?' It doesn't matter to us as long as we come out and play Utah football and do what we love and try to win."
The slights they feel might matter in one respect though. Alabama is a team dealing with the disappointment of not being in the national championship game after being ranked No. 1 for five weeks.
The Alabama players say there won't be a letdown and they'll be ready for Utah. "We never put ourselves in a situation where we underestimate our opponents," Coffee said.
Still, one has to wonder if Alabama's players are as hungry as Utah's, who view this game as their national championship.
"All year long people have been discrediting our wins saying, 'This is the week Utah is going to lose' or 'They're not that good,'" corner Sean Smith said. "We don't worry about that. We just go out there on Saturdays and prove them wrong week after week."
Now, they'd like to prove them wrong one more time.
"We couldn't ask for a better stage or a better way to show all the BCS conferences we can do the same thing as everyone else," kicker Louie Sakoda said. "We deserve a little bit more respect than we're getting."
(rankings are BCS rankings)
2005 Fiesta Bowl - No. 6 Utah def. No. 21 Pitt, 35-7
2007 Fiesta Bowl - No. 8 Boise St. def. No. 10 Oklahoma, 43-42 (OT)
2008 Sugar Bowl - No. 5 Georgia def. No. 10 Hawaii, 41-10
2009 Sugar Bowl - No. 6 Utah vs. No. 4 Alabama