In 2004 Utah rolled to an undefeated regular season and were rewarded by becoming the first non-BCS team to play in a BCS bowl. The Utes' success culminated in a thrashing of the Big East Champion Pittsburgh Panthers. They also ended the season ranked 4th in the nation and Urban Meyer parlayed that success into a gig with the Florida Gators of the tradition rich SEC.
It's now 2006 and the Utes are looking to replicate that magical 2004 season of two years ago. While the odds are fairly stacked against them, it's definitely not an improbable feat and the Utes are receiving preseason hype much like the 2004 team saw prior to their run.
To understand Utah's shot at the BCS, one needs to look no further than that 2004 season. It wasn't just that Utah went undefeated that got them into the BCS, as in 2001 BYU started the season 12-0, only to essentially be denied by the BCS prior to their late season meltdown. It's about everything coming together at the right moment. Utah benefited from the following in 2004:
- Preseason hype. The Utes entered 2004 on the heels of an impressive 10-2 campaign the year before. That hype gave Utah a preseason ranking of 20th in the AP Poll, while a ranking of 19th in the Coaches. This was essential, as the Utes already started in the top-25 as opposed to working their way up into it, like BYU had to do in 2001.
- Texas A&M. Granted the Aggies were coming off an abysmal 4 win season, however Texas A&M's name alone established Utah's early dominance when the Utes dispatched them with ease. It also didn't hurt that the Utes played this game on ESPN.
- Dominance. The Utes' closest game was a 14 point win against Air Force early on in the season. Outside of that, the Utes had little difficulty with any of their opponents and even took North Carolina -- the same Carolina team that a week later would stun Miami -- behind the woodshed for their worst beating of the season. The Utes had a relatively easy schedule (in the eyes of the BCS) and made the best of it by dominating every team on it. To contrast, Boise State lost a lot of brownie points when they were taken to OT by a San Jose State team that finished 2-9 that season.
Urban Meyer. Urban Meyer is a fantastic coach and probably an even better salesman. The local and national media loved Urban Meyer and his spread offense were the talk of the football community all season long. That talk would almost always revolve around the Utes and their chances of crashing the BCS. Urban Meyer created a buzz never before seen with a Utah team and it often overshadowed other programs like Fresno State, Boise State and even Louisville.
Now there is a good chance you can take one or two off the above list and Utah might have made the BCS. However the way everything came together made the improbable run probable. You take out the preseason hype and chances are Utah is no different than Boise State. You substitute Texas A&M with the Ohio Bobcats and Utah's not playing on ESPN. You have an OT game against Utah State and there is a chance Utah drops in the rankings. None of these were factors, but they very well could have been. Utah won and won big against three BCS opponents (Texas A&M, Arizona and North Carolina), while also dominating every conference team on their schedule. That eased some doubt that the Utes weren't for real, of course it didn't change the minds of some detractors.
The above list is something Utah needs to follow, though they should have an easier time crashing the BCS with the new BCS rules in place. Looking at the list, let's compare it to this year's Utes.
- Preseason hype. Stassen's preseason magazine's 2006 consensus has Utah ranked 21st in the nation. The 2004 consensus had Utah ranked 20th in the nation. Now these rankings are preliminary, so Utah might rise or fall depending on the other published preseason magazines. Utah is almost exactly ranked where they were heading into the 2004 season. Now there is a catch, however. It's no guarantee that Utah will even be ranked in the AP or Coaches Poll preseason top-25. It will be interesting to see where Utah starts the season come September.
- Texas A&M. Texas A&M is not on Utah's schedule in 2006, but the Utes do open up against UCLA in Pasadena. That's Utah's Texas A&M this year and the win might be received better by college football fans and media alike since the Bruins are coming off a 10 win season. Couple that with the game being on the road and Utah has a decent shot of cracking the top-25 with a win, of course that's assuming they are not there to begin with. This game, like the Aggies game, will be on national tevelision. Instead of ESPN, the game will be on FOX Sports.
- Dominance. This is an incomplete category since Utah hasn't dominated anyone yet. In 2004 the Utes needed to crack the top-6 to guarantee a BCS berth, now it's 12. Not only does this mean Utah can back its way into a BCS bowl even without starting the season in the top-25, Utah can do it with a few close calls as well.
- Urban Meyer. He's gone, so now it's up to Whittingham to step in and become the Utes salesman. So far he seems to be doing a good job at it, since I can never recall the Utes ever receiving so much preseason praise following a 7-5 campaign. Will Whittingham be able to step into the national spotlight if the Utes start the season 6-0?
There are a lot of similarities between the Utes of '06 and the Utes of '04. Whether the end result remains the same, I can't say. The Utes have a favorable schedule with Texas Christian, Colorado State and Brigham Young all coming to Salt Lake City. They also get a break with playing Boise State here this season as well. Their toughest road games will be against UCLA, New Mexico, Air Force and Wyoming. All winnable in my mind.
Utah is a legitimate BCS threat because it has the schedule, talent and preseason hype needed to make that type of run. Now we'll see if they can actually do it.
Sometime soon, not exactly sure when, I'll rebut my own argument by saying why Utah is not a legitimate BCS threat. How's that for not being biased?
Will the Utes be hoisting up another Fiesta Bowl trophy in January?