Ute football: Crimsons tied
After everything they accomplished in 2004, being paired with Pitt in the Fiesta Bowl was almost a disappointment for the Utah Utes.
There is no such letdown for the 2008 team, whose Bowl Championship Series game looks so much sweeter.
The Utes (12-0) will play Alabama (12-1), a team that held the No. 1 ranking for five weeks, in the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 2.
The Utes watched the BCS Selection Show and celebrated their upcoming trip to New Orleans with family members at Rice-Eccles Stadium on Sunday night.
"To start the year in the Big House against Michigan and end it in the Sugar Bowl against one of the most storied programs like Alabama, what more can you ask for?" Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said.
How about a win? That is what the Utes so desperately want. As a non-BCS team, they know they are often underestimated and discounted for their league and schedule.
Beating Pitt, which went into the 2005 Fiesta Bowl with an 8-3 record and a BCS ranking of No. 21, did little to validate the Utes' 2004 undefeated season.
They get a much better opportunity in the 2009 Sugar Bowl, as Utah not only plays a team that was within one win of playing for the national title, but also one that has one of the most storied traditions in all of college football.
Alabama has claimed 12 national titles and 25 conference championships, is making an NCAA record 56th bowl appearance and has a record 31 bowl wins.
It had a legendary coach in Paul "Bear" Bryant and seems to have another in the making in Nick Saban, who in just two seasons has reconstructed Alabama into a national-title contender. Alabama went undefeated until losing to Florida 31-20 on Saturday in the SEC title game. It slipped to No. 4 in the BCS standings as a result.
If the Utes can beat the Crimson Tide in New Orleans, they'll prove they are deserving of their No. 6 BCS ranking and will gain the respect they feel they have earned.
"It's one of the biggest games our team has ever played in," defender Paul Kruger said. "You couldn't ask for a better opponent or situation for our team to demonstrate what kind of team we are."
The drive to earn respect has been a big motivating factor for this team and will continue to be in the bowl game, receiver Brent Casteel said.
The 2005 game against Pitt "wasn't as big a deal as far as what people thought," Casteel said. "But to go against Alabama, with a high-caliber offense and a great physical defense, to go against that team is going to prove a lot. I said at the start of the season this was the year of the Utes, and I feel like we're going to pull this out and in great fashion."
Intimidation won't be an issue either, the Utes say. Alabama may have a longer winning tradition, more records and more championships, but all that past success won't help when it's time to kick off in the Superdome, the Utes believe.
"We shouldn't be scared of anybody," quarterback Brian Johnson said. "This is about the 2008 Utah Utes vs. the 2008 Crimson Tide and settling that on field."
The Tide rank 23rd nationally in rushing offense, averaging 196.5 yards per game behind the strength of running back Glen Coffee, who averages 103.6 yards a game.
Utah's defense is one of the best nationally against the run, ranking 11th and giving up just 104.8 yards a game.
The Tide also boasts one of the best defenses nationally, ranking third and yielding just 256.9 yards a game.
Whittingham said he watched "every snap" of the SEC championship game. One of his first calls, he said, would be to Florida coach Urban Meyer for a little insider knowledge.
"I'll be on the phone with him tonight," he said.
Alabama at a glance
Coach: Nick Saban (19-7), 2nd season)
Notable victory: Coached LSU to 2003 national title
2008 record 12-1
2008 overview: Alabama, ranked No. 24 in the preseason, showed signs that Nick Saban's reconstruction of the storied program was ahead of schedule when the Tide opened the season with a 34-10 pounding of No. 9 Clemson.
Three weeks later, Alabama proved it was a legitimate contender for the national title when it went to Athens, Ga., and beat the Bulldogs 41-30.
Alabama moved into the No. 1 spot in the rankings on Nov. 2, just in time for its biggest game of the regular season when it went to LSU on Nov. 8.
There it outlasted coach Saban's former team 27-21 in overtime.
At New Orleans, Utah (12-0) vs. Alabama (12-1),
Jan. 2, 6 p.m. (Ch. 13)