Three days into 2009, a little less than an hour after Utah beat Alabama 31-17 in the Sugar Bowl to wrap up a perfect 13-0 campaign, coach Kyle Whittingham put this quote out into the universe:
"I know where I'm voting us. I'm voting us No. 1. End of story. … I don't know why they wouldn't deserve that consideration. Somebody has to explain to me why they wouldn't. There is only one undefeated team in the United States of America right now in Division I football, and it's these guys right here."
Let’s call a spade a spade. He knew why. So did the computers. So did everyone else who voted Florida No. 1 after Tim Tebow and the Gators defeated Oklahoma in the BCS championship game and put gutty little Utah at No. 2.
The Utes were BCS busters, not BCS blue bloods. They'd had a perfect season, but they were in the Mountain West Conference then and thus relegated to the kids table while the adults talked. If ever there was a year that illustrated the struggle of the mid-major, it was 2008. Without the backing of a major conference, a national championship simply wasn’t going to happen.
A lot of people will call Utah’s 62-20 pasting of No. 13 Oregon on Saturday night its “arrival.” But those who follows the Utes or the Pac-12 conference know that simply isn’t true.
Utah arrived a long time ago. Knocking off the defending league champion? Been there, done that in 2013. What about on the road? They did that, too, in 2014. In fact, Utah has now beaten the reigning conference champion on the road in consecutive years. And that was after sweeping the L.A. schools in 2014.
No, Utah has been here a while. There’s a reason that, over the summer, UCLA’s Jim Mora and USC’s Steve Sarkisian said they dreaded playing Utah. The Utes have been quietly stalking and making a name for themselves within the league. Saturday night they pounced with fury and vigor.
And in the process, Whittingham reasserted that he’s one of the best coaches in the nation. The game plan against Oregon was flawless in all three phases. The Utes outgained the Ducks on the scoreboard and stat sheet. The defense forced three turnovers, made five sacks and kept the Ducks to 222 yards on the ground. Tom Hackett put all three punts inside the 20, Andy Phillips converted both field goals, and that punt return — c’est magnifique.
Whittingham admitted on his postgame radio show Saturday night that he had been “vanilla” the first three weeks of the season before installing new wrinkles on offense and pressures on defense. Let that sink in … Utah was vanilla when it beat Michigan 24-17. Can you imagine a time when a vanilla Utah team could dispatch the winningest program in college football history?
“We talked about being tough and physical, which is our brand of football anyways, but when preparation meets toughness and physicality, the result was what happened tonight,” Whittingham said. “Oregon is a quality program and they have a lot of good players and I couldn’t be more proud of our guys and how they responded. This is great momentum for us going into the bye week.”
The question now becomes, can the Utes sustain it? Because we’ve seen flashes from them in the past. After shocking Stanford in 2013 — what many considered Utah’s first signature win since joining the Pac-12 — it went on to drop five of its next six and miss the postseason. Last year the Utes won at UCLA and at home against USC, but were swept by the Arizona schools and had an inexplicable home collapse against Washington State.
The bye week comes at an opportune time. Quarterback Travis Wilson can use the rest, and the team can enjoy the Oregon victory and still have enough time to get a grip on whatever emotions may be carrying over.
Some would say the schedule sets up nicely, with just USC, Washington and Arizona left on the road. (They get Cal, Arizona State, Oregon State, UCLA and Colorado at home.) But anyone who knows Pac-12 football sees the trap games and pitfalls that await the rest of the year. Not to mention the fact that home-field advantage continues to mean very little. In the five conference games Saturday, the home teams went 0-5.
But for the first time since the 2008 season, Utah is nationally relevant and very much in the College Football Playoff discussion. And unlike in 2008, it’s got the backing of a major conference. It’s still only September, but Whittingham and the Utes control their own destiny.
That must be refreshing.