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How Utah turned from unknown to little-guy prominence


Kyle Whittingham is used to being an outsider -- if you consider being called a scab an outsider.

And you should.

"It was very memorable," Utah's coach said of his time as an NFL replacement player 23 years ago. "They put us in vans in a hotel three or four miles away and drove us across the picket line. They were rocking the van and cursing."

Those were the striking NFL players playing the part of union goons trying to intimidate the replacement players who briefly took their jobs in 1987. Let's just say intimidation worked much better on the field.

"Every once in a while one guy would wink at you like, 'Hey this is what we have to do,'" Whittingham said.

The coach doesn't see the line that could connect those nonunion pariahs to the non-BCS outsiders of today. Seldom, though, has there been a bigger threat to the BCS' rich and powerful. TCU, Boise and Utah are bunched in a three-team pack (at Nos. 3, 4 and 5) behind Auburn and Oregon this week in the BCS standings. Together, they have played in a combined five BCS bowls since the 2004 season.

"I don't think there is analogy," Whittingham said, harkening back to his brief NFL career. "We've been there twice and won BCS bowls twice."

No. 3 could come soon. Utah is almost an afterthought among the non-BCS teams storming the gates. The Utes started the season unranked in the AP poll. Even though they are No. 5 this week in the BCS, they are thought to be the longest shot of the outsiders to get into the top two. But Utah remains the pioneer, the first school from a non-automatic qualifying conference to get to a BCS bowl (2005 Fiesta). It may do it again if the Utes can get past TCU on Saturday. The winner stays among the unbeaten. If Oregon and/or Auburn slip up during this final month of play, logic tells you that one of the non-BCS challengers would have a chance to crash the gates.

Utah or Boise or TCU still need that break to become the first non-BCS program in the 13-year-old BCS era to play for a national championship. That's a smaller point than the fact the possibility even exists. Saturday's BCS elimination game depends on your point of view. Either this is another example of these teams being doomed to second-class citizenry -- Saturday's loser is out -- or they are at this moment because of the system. One of the architects of Utah's rise to power comes down on the side of the system.

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"Utah is a very good academic institution," said Florida president Bernie Machen, who came to Gainesville from Utah. "Since I was there, they've had a Nobel laureate. The health sciences programs are ranked very high. Still, it was the exposure to the BCS that gave them their entrée, no doubt about it."

Many will grudgingly agree with Machen, who was Utah's president when Urban Meyer was hired in 2003. The right coach came along to the right school at the right time. Without the BCS in place, Utah and their non-AQ brothers would be playing for bowl scraps and recruiting second-level players. GameDay wouldn't come within 100 miles of their cit-tay. Who knows, maybe even enrollment, federal grants and the ability to attract quality faculty would be impacted.

For all its faults, it's time to admit the BCS has made the likes of Utah big time. Along with AD Chris Hill, Meyer and Machen built something special out West. So special that Utah had raised its profile enough to be invited to the Pac-10 in the offseason. And that profile needed to be raised.

"Nil," said Aaron Taylor, the CBS College Sports analyst who will work the game in Salt Lake City. "I'll be honest with you."

That's Taylor's knowledge of Utah before the 2004 season. He wasn't alone. That was before Meyer and Alex Smith and the Fiesta Bowl and Whittingham and that 2009 Sugar Bowl win over Alabama. That lack of history is what irritates so many above that BCS Mendoza Line -- programs dominant for seven decades could be trumped by one that has been relevant on the national scene for seven years. "You look at Utah and whether they deserve to be in the [championship] game or not," Taylor said. "You can ask Alabama whether Utah deserves to be there."

But how did the Utes get here?

 By identifying Meyer. It's not an understatement to say that the coach's hiring changed the course of the university, the football program and college football. Machen wasn't even sure Meyer would take the job after the 2002 season out of his loyalty to his employers at Bowling Green. In two years under Meyer, Utah went 22-2. A major program and a coaching career were born.

"We met Urban in an airport hotel in Denver," Machen said. "He was sick. He had the flu. He was very serious, very focused. We knew right then he was the best guy we could attract."

 By maximizing Alex Smith. Forget the NFL career (please). Smith was an underweight, underachieving quarterback at a career crossroads when Meyer decided to make him the centerpiece of his spread option zone read. The smart, resilient Smith then rode Utah's undefeated season to a fourth-place finish in the 2004 Heisman voting.

 By making a second home-run hire. After Meyer left for Florida, the transition was seamless. Having to choose between openings at his alma mater, BYU, and with his current employer, Whittingham chose the Utes. Meyer's old defensive coordinator is 56-17 in six seasons.

 By manning up. There's something about these Utes. They don't wilt easily. Former defensive end Paul Kruger survived a brutal stabbing by gang members, got back on the field and is now in the NFL. Running back Matt Asiata has come back from two season-ending injuries to be second in rushing as a sixth-year senior this year. Current quarterback Jordan Wynn missed only a couple of weeks this season with a thumb injury.

"It [toughness] permeates throughout the squad," Whittingham said.

 By proving it belonged. Utah became that first team to qualify for a BCS bowl under the old standard (finish in the top six) in 2004. The Utes not only impressed on the field -- a 35-7 win over Big East champion Pittsburgh -- but brought loads of fans to the Valley of the Sun.

Upset that Tulane's undefeated team in 1998 didn't have access to the BCS, Tulane president Scott Cowen pressured the BCS commissioners to change the system. In 2006, the BCS added a fifth bowl to accommodate the non-BCS qualifier(s). Because of Cowen, the access point became a top 12 finish (top 16 if a power conference champion finished below a non-BCS champion). Boise took advantage to get to the 2007 Fiesta Bowl, where it upset Oklahoma. Two years later, Utah was in the Sugar Bowl dominating Alabama.

"I think we've gained respect across the country," Whittingham said, "and we're well known."

 By mining rich recruiting veins. Ninety percent of Utah's scholarship players come from Texas, Utah and California, according to the coach. There are 25 Californians on the current squad, most of them from Southern California. That ratio, and the talent level, should improve with the move to the Pac-12.

Utah has not missed a beat since coach Kyle Whittingham took over after Urban Meyer left for Florida. (US Presswire)  
Utah has not missed a beat since coach Kyle Whittingham took over after Urban Meyer left for Florida. (US Presswire)  
"When I was here the first 10 years, I was recruiting Southern California and would have to explain who we were, where we were located, what conference we were in," Whittingham said. "Now that's no longer an issue."

Neither is support at Rice-Eccles Stadium. Ever hear of MUSS? Probably not.

"The student section is unbelievable," said TCU coach Gary Patterson of the Mighty Utah Student Section. "They keep count of how many times they get the opposing team to jump offsides and illegal procedure. You know you're not just playing 11 guys on the field."

This rivalry seems like it will be over before it started. TCU was 9-1 in 2008 headed to Utah for a showdown in a series that has been short and bitter. On that night, the Frogs dominated with their typical smothering defense until Utah put together a late, desperate touchdown drive to win 13-10.

"I don't think you could even come close to expressing in words what the kids felt," Patterson said.

The Frogs have dug down deep to get back to this point. Since that night they are 23-1, including a blowout win against Utah last year in Fort Worth. The only loss has been to Boise in last season's Fiesta Bowl. Utah is 21-3 since then, with a Crimson Tide scalp hung on the wall.

After Saturday this blink-of-an-eye Mountain West rivalry will be over after six seasons. Utah will move on to a new league. The non-BCS cause will have one less power to make its argument. As if to hammer home that status, Saturday's loser will fall all the way to the Las Vegas Bowl. The winner will be reminded of a call Whittingham got 23 years ago when the NFL strike hit.

"Hey, do you want to play some more football?" the coach remembers the Rams saying.

His answer then is the same as it will be next month if the Utes get to a third BCS bowl, this one maybe for the national championship.


Anyone in need of a credential from all the BCS title games? Dennis Dodd has them. In three decades in the business, he's covered everything from the Olympics to Stanley Cup to conference realignment. Just get him on campus in a press box in the fall. His heart lies with college football.

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