One year after losing to Utah in the Sugar Bowl, Nick Saban won his first national championship as Alabama’s football coach. The school built a statue of him, positioned at the entrance to the Crimson Tide’s stadium.
Everything that Saban and the Tide have gone on to do, including Monday’s victory for his fifth title in nine seasons, continues to enhance what Utah achieved in the January 2009 Sugar Bowl. The Utes have displayed a banner outside Rice-Eccles Stadium, but the school needs something bigger and bolder to illustrate its role in the start of Alabama’s dynasty.
Maybe the Utes should commission a monument to Andy Ludwig.
Think about this: In his last game as Utah’s offensive coordinator, to be followed by eight play-callers in nine years, Ludwig designed a scheme that beat Saban and Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart. In his second season as Georgia’s coach, Smart certainly made Saban earn his 26-23 overtime win in Monday’s championship game.
The Tide’s winning touchdown pass was delivered by freshman quarterback Tua Tagovailoa — a nephew of Fano Tagovailoa, a backup quarterback for Utah’s unbeaten 2004 team.
In Monday’s case, the convergence of coaching acumen on each sideline in Atlanta was another reminder of everything the Utes accomplished in a 31-17 win in the Sugar Bowl. Alabama’s reign is one of college athletics’ biggest stories of this century, and nobody knows when it will end. What’s clear is that it started only after that loss to Utah, creating a lasting effect for Ute coach Kyle Whittingham and his program.
The biggest question, looking back, is what the ’08 Utes could have done if in a playoff system — or if they would have been included. Alabama’s subsequent success is keeping that Utah team historically relevant, and so is Central Florida’s emergence this season. The Knights are claiming a national championship with a 13-0 record and a Peach Bowl win over Auburn, which beat Alabama and Georgia.
UCF didn’t come close to making the College Football Playoff’s four-team field. Judging by the Bowl Championship Series rankings of that era, Utah also would have missed the semifinals. The Utes were No. 6 in the BCS, earning the Sugar Bowl bid in a year when Florida beat Oklahoma in the BCS title game.
The ’08 Utes finished No. 2 in the AP poll and were celebrated in a downtown parade. They wanted, and deserved, bigger opportunities on the field. Yet because of the system’s perceived unfairness, they got a lot of credit. And they’re getting more of it as the years go by, thanks to Alabama.
For the sake of history, Utah drew the perfect opponent in Sugar Bowl. Saban is now established as college football’s greatest coach ever, Alabama is the model program and Smart quickly has built a product to challenge the Tide in the Southeastern Conference and beyond.
And the Utes beat those guys convincingly.
The week of the Sugar Bowl, I drove from New Orleans to Tuscaloosa, Ala., arranged a tour of the football facilities and stood inside the lair of Saban and Smart: Alabama’s defensive meeting room, where the phrase “Create a Nightmare” was painted in big letters. That’s exactly what happened in the Sugar Bowl, only not as the Tide intended.
Defensive end Paul Kruger, cornerback Sean Smith, linebacker Koa Misi and offensive lineman Zane Beadles were among Utah’s highly drafted players. Yet the best player on the field that night, quarterback Brian Johnson, never came close to making an NFL roster.
Johnson passed for 336 yards and three touchdowns in what qualifies as an Un-Whittingham game, in some ways. The Utes rushed for 13 yards, allowed a special-teams touchdown and still dominated the Tide, as Ludwig (now working at Vanderbilt) outcoached Saban and Smart. Also coaching in his last game for Utah, Gary Andersen — who has rejoined the staff, nine years later — directed a defense that held Alabama to 208 total yards.
That victory is the cornerstone of Whittingham’s legacy, as of the 13-year mark. He’ll also be known for his success in bowl games (an 11-1 record) and in the rivalry with BYU (seven straight wins), besides leading Utah’s transition into the Pac-12.
Whittingham’s record in Pac-12 games is 28-35, although the program has improved in the past four seasons (19-17). Until the Utes win a conference championship, or even a South division title, the ’08 team will have a major distinction in school history. This fact remains remarkable: The Utes had better personnel than Alabama, even as a Mountain West program. Thirteen players from that team were drafted into the NFL and three others have had extended pro careers. Saban, then in his second season, was just getting started in his recruiting domination.
The ’08 Utes were talented and well-coached. They also were highly motivated. That’s an amazing combination of traits. Alabama keeps making that team look even better.