Uptight? Not in Utah

SALT LAKE CITY -- "Jell-O shot?"

I turned to find a woman clad in Utah Utes red, holding a shallow plastic cup full of red Jell-O a few inches from my face, ready to squeeze its alcohol-laced contents into my mouth.

No thanks, I said. I was here to work, and I didn't want to be guilty of TUI -- typing under the influence. Besides, I had already seen enough on a tour of the tailgating lot outside Rice-Eccles Stadium to know that pregame partying at Utah is not a Donny & Marie production.

More like a Jack & Coke production.

That's not universal, of course. A large percentage of Utah fans are Mormons. You'll still find more teetotalers per capita at a Utah game than, say, at LSU -- where former quarterback Rohan Davey once described the sensory experience of running onto the field at Tiger Stadium by saying, "You can smell the whiskey."

Here, you can find a tiny train touring the tailgating grounds, full of little kids. And the only loud music you hear is when the Utah marching band drops by to play a few tunes for the fans. This is more of a quiet riot.

"They try to keep it family-friendly," Utes fan Chris Evans said.

But the liquor does flow here. Salt Lake City is not a place where you find the majority of the football fans sipping Country Time lemonade around their RVs. That place would be 45 miles to the south. That place would be Provo, home of Brigham Young University, which is affiliated with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Actually, the story of tailgating in the state of Utah is a story about Jell-O. How you treat the stuff largely depends on your religion -- and, to a degree, on your school affiliation.

Jell-O is traditionally popular party fare out here -- especially among Mormons, furthering the stereotype that LDS folk are not the raciest people in the world. Non-Mormons -- many more of whom root for Utah than arch-rival BYU -- treat it a little differently.

"When we have Jell-O," said longtime Utah season-ticket holder Joe Larsen, "there's usually something in it."

Utes fans -- at least the thousands you could find tailgating Saturday night, before their rampaging team massacred Colorado State 63-31 -- dispute their state's uptight reputation. And they dispute it with a cocktail in each hand.

"Utah," said the woman brandishing the Jell-O shots, "is not a boring place."

It's a place where no fewer than five people winked and showed me the flasks they intended to sneak into the stadium -- some of them packing more than one. It's a place where half a dozen people offered me a beer (plus the above-mentioned Jell-O shot). It's a place where the lines for the Port-A-Potties are long and loopy, and the language can definitely get salty.

It's a place where they don't mind taking swipes at BYU and its fans. One longtime tailgating group, the Stadium Stompers, has a sign that reads, "I Brake For All Animals But Cougars." Utefans.net, a fan Web site that has its own tailgate, has a sign that proclaims, "If you don't have anything nice to say, say it about the Zoobies."

(The sign defines a Zoobie as a term for BYU students, fans and athletes. As the sign explains, "Legend has it that the term came about because BYU is like a zoo, whose inmates roam the grounds looking for mates.")

It's a place where they tell the following joke: Why do you take two Mormons fishing with you? Because if you take one, he'll drink all your beer. The inference being that there's some hypocrisy among the faithful when it comes to drinking where no LDS brethren can see them.

"I used to own a bar," Utah fan Brian Propelka said. "I served some martinis in coffee cups."

And Utah is a place where they can raise a little hell once they get to the stadium, too. The Utes still aren't selling out every game -- Saturday night's attendance was 44,222, about 800 short of capacity -- but the atmosphere has come a long way in two heady years under Urban Meyer.

This school has a longer and stronger basketball pedigree. But football has caught up under Meyer, who along with Jeff Tedford leads the "hot-coach list" in college football. Rice-Eccles has become a legitimately difficult place to play.

"We've got the fever," Stadium Stomper Diane Taylor said.

"Utah used to be a sit-on-your hands crowd," Larsen said. "Now we've got the crazies out."

Many of the crazies sit in the Muss, the oddly named Ute student section. The name is derived from a line in the old school song, which brags, "No other gang of college men dare meet us in a muss."

Today that's evolved into an acronym: Mighty Utah Student Section, and it brims with rowdies. In support and admiration, the Utah players wear a "Muss" decal on the backs of their helmets.

"It's incredible how far it's come," Evans said. "[Former coach] Ron McBride's last couple years were really disappointing. Two years ago for a game like this, there would be 15,000 people here. Urban's changed all that.

"You listen to him speak for five minutes and you're ready to go to war with him. There was a movement to put him on the ballot in Utah for president, to see if he could get more votes than Kerry."

After ripping the Rams, the players, band and student section bonded for the postgame tradition Meyer started. The band played the alma mater, then everyone sang the fight song together.

Players danced a jig as they sang. Meyer pumped his left fist and sang, his arm around his wife, Shelley, who sang along as well. At a moment like this, amid all that joy -- even the potential riches and glamour at Florida or Washington, or any of the other big-time schools that will try to woo Meyer, seemed like a risky trade.

How many millions does it take to buy this kind of scene? There might not be enough.

"To sing the fight song with us afterward, to see them stay involved, pumped and rowdy and loud -- that's what college football is all about," star Utah quarterback Alex Smith said.

But as far as Meyer has brought football at Utah, the feel here remains nouveau riche. The fans were almost completely gone from the stadium midway through the fourth quarter, and there were a few pregame signs that the fever hasn't completely taken hold.

You couldn't find anyone in the tailgate area watching other games on TV. And as Utes fan Tracie Elliott, an import from South Carolina, pointed out: "You're not cooking pigs in the ground yet. This isn't like the SEC, but they're getting close. They're getting there."

One Jell-O shot at a time.

Pat Forde is a senior writer at ESPN.com.