Utes' win changes the game

Published January 4, 2009 12:59 am
Sugar Bowl » Beating Alabama could bring Utah big dividends down the road.
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The shock waves were still rippling here Saturday.

Utah's 31-17 victory over vaunted Alabama in Friday's Sugar Bowl was as thorough as it was unexpected, and left mouths agape all along the Gulf Coast.

According to the New Orleans Times-Picayune , the Utes' upset win "has to rank with the most stunning in the 75-year history of the Bowl." And the Utah bandwagon almost toppled over from all the pundits -- who had previously dismissed the Utes -- trying to climb on.

About the only ones who weren't surprised were the Utes.

Maybe it's time for everybody else to stop being shocked, too.

Since the 2003 season, Utah has won 59 games and lost just 16. Since 2000, the Utes have won 16 games against teams from the six major conferences -- the "BCS" schools -- more than any non-BCS team. And they have won eight consecutive bowl games dating back to 1999, the longest such streak in the nation.

Now this: a 13-0 season that included four wins over four nationally ranked teams and was capped with a signature victory over one of the most storied programs in all of college football. And in an environment, no less, that was essentially a road contest for the Utes, given the 55,000 or so Crimson Tide fans who invaded the Superdome.

"There's only one undefeated team in the United States of America right now in Division I football, and it's these guys right here," said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham.

Utah's players, coaches and fans were all staking a claim to the nation's No. 1 ranking after Friday's win, and their logic was not unreasonable.

"You have to vote us No. 1. We're the only team left standing," said South Jordan resident Sean Baker, amid the Ute revelry in the French Quarter early Saturday morning.

In Utah, the team's plane landed in Salt Lake City at about 1 p.m. to cheers of about 50 family and friends.

"We can play anyone in the country, and we proved that last night!" said John Bursell, 37, who drove up from his home in Highland to welcome the Utes home. His 9-year-old son J.J. wore a Utes football helmet covered with signatures he had acquired during the season.

Despite their record, the Utes won't be voted No. 1. Oklahoma and Florida will square off for the BCS championship on Thursday, and the winner will claim the national title. But Utah could garner a first-place vote or two in the polls after what they did here, and that leads to a more pertinent question.

Have the Utes finally secured a place in the national football consciousness?

For all the gains made after Utah's first unbeaten season and trip to a BCS game in 2004 -- a 35-7 victory over Pittsburgh -- the accomplishment receded relatively quickly because of Pitt's lack of stature and Utah coach Urban Meyer's jump to Florida right after the win. Sportswriters and bloggers continued to confuse Utah with Utah State and still mistakenly placed the Utes in the Western Athletic Conference (they're in the Mountain West). Their favorite question: "What is a Ute?"

But this could be different. The Alabama team the Utes crushed has won 12 -- count 'em -- national championships and spent the last month of this season ranked No. 1. Only a hard-fought 31-20 loss to Meyer's Florida Gators in the Southeastern Conference championship game last month kept the Crimson Tide from a national title game date against Oklahoma.

And there is this: Whittingham signed a lucrative five-year contract extension just before the Sugar Bowl, ensuring a level of stability that was missing after Meyer's post-Fiesta Bowl departure.

Utah still isn't USC, or Ohio State or Texas. Or Oklahoma, or Alabama, for that matter. The Utes don't graduate to that stratosphere on the basis of one Sugar Bowl victory -- their overall resources and national media exposure still pale next to those powerhouses.

But the Utes have now probably earned themselves a place-holder when the national conversation turns to college football. And that can translate into dividends for both the football program and the university.

Much like Brigham Young University became an almost-yearly fixture in the Top 25 following its 1984 national championship, the Utes will likely receive additional consideration and scrutiny in coming seasons because of what they accomplished in the Superdome, and certainly will next season with 15 of their 22 offensive and defensive starters scheduled to return.

That will no doubt help raise the Utes' national profile, which likely will help recruiting, ticket sales, sponsorships and overall donations to the university.

Everybody loves a winner. And the Utes look set up to cash in on this victory, perhaps for years to come.

jbaird@sltrib.com" Target="_BLANK">jbaird@sltrib.com

Tribune reporter Lindsay Whitehurst contributed to this report.

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