Kragthorpe: Utes' win is biggest ever, and not just for themselves
As the clock ticked down Friday night, the Superdome eerily was quiet except for the corner of the building where Utah's fans were chanting, "Undefeated!"
About that, there could be no argument. And as coach Kyle Whittingham said, "We're the only ones standing right now."
So as for the those Utes who were declaring, "We're No. 1," well, who's going to tell them otherwise at this point?
"We're the best team in the country," said quarterback Brian Johnson.
Judging by the way the Utes dominated Alabama in a 31-17 victory in the Sugar Bowl to cap their 13-0 season, who's to say they could not knock off USC or Texas or Oklahoma or Florida?
That's all left to the imagination, in the absence of a playoff system. What's real is that this Utah team delivered the biggest victory in school history and the most meaningful performance ever by a team outside the six power conferences in the Bowl Championship Series.
It is more significant than the Utes' Fiesta Bowl win four years ago because this was Alabama, not Pittsburgh. It is more impressive than Boise State's victory over Oklahoma two years ago, because there was nothing gimmicky about it.
Afterward, Alabama coach Nick Saban almost sounded vindicated about the Utes. "I said they were a very good football team a hundred times, and I believe that," he said.
This was all the proof of greatness the Utes ever could have provided in a 60-minute showcase. Denied any national championship opportunity, all they can do is anticipate a top-five finish in the polls --- with the promise of at least one first-place vote, from Whittingham.
Johnson endorsed that ballot, while wondering, "What else do we have to prove?"
The Utes have stopped winning, only because the schedule will idle them for eight months.
This team's legacy was cemented in the Sugar Bowl: The Utes always came through under pressure and they took advantage of every opportunity.
They exploited a beaten-up Crimson Tide offensive line by registering eight sacks, they matched Florida's 31-point effort against 'Bama, they delivered a touchdown drive after their 21-0 lead was almost washed away and they held strong in an environment where their fans occupied only about one-sixth of the seats.
That's what made the Utes' resolve so impressive. This was nothing like the Fiesta Bowl in suburban Phoenix, where Utah followers filled two-thirds of the seats. In this atmosphere, resembling the setting of a road game in the Southeastern Conference, the Utes easily could have buckled early in the third quarter after Johnson's fumble led to a Tide touchdown that cut the lead to 21-17.
But anyone who was expecting Utah to crumble obviously was not paying attention all year. From start to finish, there was something about this team. These Utes did not overwhelm everybody the way the '04 team did, but they always made the critical plays.
This was a game of intriguing matchups: the Mountain West vs. the Southeastern Conference, recent bowl success vs. storied tradition, Whittingham vs. Urban Meyer's shadow and offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig vs. Saban's defense.
The Utes won them all, which hardly should be surprising. That's what they did all season.