Prior to Utah's 2004 season, 1994 was highly regarded as the best in Utah football history. Yet it was also the most frustrating season in Utah history, because they had to settle for being just really good instead of really great.
To get a good sense of 1994, you've got to go back a few years. Firstly, this was the first season since the 1960s where the Utes actually fielded a team worthy of high praise. Prior to that, 8-wins and staying competitive with BYU was enough to call a season something of a success. Yet when Ron McBride took over Utah football in 1990, things were changing. The Utes made two straight bowl games from 1992 to 1993 and also won their first game down in Provo against BYU since LaVell Edwards took over the Cougar football program in 1972. Optimism, a word that hadn't been in the lexicon of Ute fans for decades, was mounting and the Utes were on the verge of something really special.
The 1994 season saw Utah as a strong pick to compete for the WAC Championship, as Lindy's, The Sporting News and Street & Smith all picked Utah to finish in the top-half of the conference. It was probably the most hyped season since the Wayne Howard days and one that got off to a roaring start.
Utah kicked off the 1994 season by easily defeating Utah State, Idaho State and Oregon. That Oregon game was significant because it was played in Eugene and the Ducks would go on to win the Pac-10 and play in the Rose Bowl that year. Yet even with that win over a solid Oregon team, it wasn't until October 4th, after a 4-0 start, the Utes finally cracked the AP top-25. They came in at 25th, right behind 2-2 Wisconsin.
Rewarded with a top-25 ranking, Utah beat Hawaii in a low scoring affair and then set up what at that time was called the biggest game in WAC history. The Utes had climbed to 18th in the polls, while their next opponent, Colorado State, came into that game undefeated and ranked 12th.
Most Ute fans remember this game because of its epic finish. And boy was it epic, as two of the best teams that year put forth an effort just as worthy as their record. Colorado State, picked by some to win the WAC, had a clear advantage of playing at home and were the favorites. And while Utah had an impressive record themselves, Oregon had yet to run through the Pac-10 and the other Utah victories weren't head turning. Colorado State though, led by second year head coach Sonny Lubick, already had a victory over WAC preseason favorite BYU, as well as solid victories over Air Force and Arizona. The Wildcats had been ranked 6th in the nation before losing at home to the Rams. It would be no easy task for Utah, but they were confident heading into their big showdown.
A record crowd of 39,107 fans packed Hughes Stadium -- still the largest crowd to ever watch a Rams football game -- and ABC's cameras rolled as the Utes and CSU took the field. Utah had the early edge, jumping out to a seemingly dominant 31-17 lead. That score came after the Utes recovered a fumble and used a little trickery to get into the end zone. Yet it would be the only points Utah would score again for most of the day, as the Rams stormed back and tied the game at 31 in the fourth quarter.
That's when this typically ordinary game turned into one of the greatest games in Utah football history.
With a little over four minutes left in the game, Utah, under the leadership of quarterback Mike McCoy, marched 70-yards down the field and scored off a short 8-yard pass to Curtis Marsh. That put Utah up 38-31, yet the game was far from over and CSU reminded every fan why they were barely outside the top ten.
The Rams' offense quickly sliced through Utah's defense and looked poised to tie the game up with the clock slowly ticking away. On Utah's ten, the Utes successfully knocked down two passes, which set up a crucial 3rd down. CSU quarterback Anthoney Hill had already led the Rams back from a deficit, but this one was different. Staring defeat in the face, Hill saw the entire Rams team hoist themselves up on his shoulders. He was either poised to lead them to another comeback, or buckle under the pressure, ending Colorado State's hopes for an undefeated season. And just like that, a game of such high emotions and crazy plays came down to this. One snap, one pass and the Utes' #4 defense finally lived up to its ranking.
Hill stepped back and glanced to the end zone. The crowd stood, deathly quiet at what was transforming on the football field. It was a ballet on grass, an opera of whistles, cheers and moans. 60 minutes of college football came down to this one play. The ball spun through the air, on course with its target in the end zone. And then as unlikely as Utah's quick start, Harold Lusk stepped in front of the pass, picked it off and sprinted 100 yards down the sideline to a stunned silence. He roared into the end zone and sealed Utah's victory, then joined the Utah fans in the corner of the stadium and celebrated Utah's 7-0 start.
The Utes had knocked off the 12th ranked Rams and had what appeared to be an easy path to the WAC championship. That scenario seemed even more likely after Utah's thumping of UTEP in Salt Lake City a week later. They were 8-0 and had the school's first ever top ten ranking. It looked clear enough at the time, Utah was on their way to an impressive undefeated season and a probable spot in a major bowl game. It seemed as if no one would get in their way and with games against lowly New Mexico, a solid -- but not great -- Air Force team and a BYU program that had to travel to Salt Lake, the Utes were primed for a run that was eerily reminiscent of one we would see ten years later.
Yet it didn't happen. There was no undefeated season, no WAC championship and no major bowl game. Two weeks after beating Colorado State in Fort Collins, the Utes were shocked by New Mexico in Albuquerque. Shocked because the Lobos had entered the game 3-6 and destined for another abysmal season. The loss devastated Utah, as a week later they would lose again, this time to Air Force. And even though the Utes finished the year beating a ranked BYU team and winning the Freedom Bowl against Arizona, wonders of what Utah could have accomplished had they not lost those two games plagued Utah fans for years later, and to an extent probably still do.
In 1994, the Utes finished 10th in the nation. At 10-2, they had the worst record of any top ten team outside of Florida. It's unknown what Utah would have accomplished had it not lost to New Mexico and Air Force, but the hypothetical has always been there. Colorado State went on to win the rest of their games before falling to a 7-4 Michigan team in the Holiday Bowl. They finished 16th in the country. Oregon finished 11th after losing to Penn State in the Rose Bowl and BYU would go on to defeat Oklahoma in the Copper Bowl on their way to a 10-3 finish and a spot at 18th in the polls. Arizona, Utah's opponent in the Freedom Bowl, finished 20th, which gave Utah 4 victories over teams that finished the season in the top-25.
An undefeated Utah team, owning victories over Oregon, Colorado State and BYU, would have definitely made noise that year. As to whether it would have been enough for Utah to slide into the top spot will never be known. That year Nebraska won the national championship after finishing 13-0, while Penn State, at 12-0, came in 2nd. It's tough to say if Utah would have been able to get enough votes to pass Penn State for 2nd in the nation, but there are some scenarios that might have benefited the Utes.
The first scenario is probably the most likely. An undefeated Utah team not getting an invite to a big bowl game and playing in the Holiday Bowl instead of Colorado State. That would have given Utah a game against Michigan, who was ranked 20th prior to their win over the Rams. Now whether Utah would have been capable of beating Michigan is up for debate. But since Colorado State stayed competitive with Michigan and Utah beat Colorado State, I think it's only logical to assume the Utes could have knocked off the Wolverines. That would have given Utah an undefeated record at 12-0 and again wins over 4 ranked teams.
Where does that place them in the final rankings? Well I guess it depends on what the other teams do. Most likely, CSU would have played Arizona in the Freedom Bowl, in place of Utah. This probably would have been a victory because the two met in Tucson earlier in the year and the Rams came out on top. Prior to the bowl season, Colorado State was 10th in the nation and most likely would have climbed even higher, as Florida and Miami both lost their bowl games. BYU still defeats Oklahoma and finishes 10-3.
The interesting stat, that I brought up a bit earlier, is that Utah had the 2nd worst record of any top ten team that year. This tells me Utah held some credibility with the voters and if Utah was capable of defeating a 20th ranked Michigan team (Arizona was 15th when Utah knocked them off in the Freedom Bowl) and ending the season undefeated, they would have easily cracked the top five. The only undefeated teams in college football that year would have been Nebraska, Penn State and Utah. Now whether Utah's win over a top seven (or better) CSU team could slide them ahead of Penn State I cannot say. Instead, I'll leave that speculation to you.
The second scenario was less likely, but probably far more better to Utah's program than the above scenario. There were two possibilities of Utah going to a major bowl that season. One was the Fiesta, which would have been the more likely choice since Notre Dame was chosen at 6-4-1, and the other the Orange Bowl. The Orange Bowl in the 1994 season featured an undefeated Nebraska team against the one-loss Miami Hurricanes. At the time, the Hurricanes were members of the Big East, which did not have a tie-in with the Orange Bowl. However, the champion of the Big 8 (now the Big 12) was assigned a spot in the Orange Bowl. That year, of course, it was an undefeated Nebraska team.
The first part of scenario two has Utah going to the Fiesta Bowl, which would match two at-large teams (Utah and Colorado). The Buffaloes entered that game 10-1 with their lone loss coming to Nebraska. Now whether Utah had the talent and coaching to defeat Colorado is unclear, but if the Utes could have somehow defeated the 4th ranked Buffs, that would have positioned them nicely for a run at the national championship.
Now obviously the best shot for Utah would have come in the Orange Bowl. If they were slotted a spot over Miami, who possibly would have gone and played Colorado in the Fiesta Bowl, the Utes would have had a chance to beat the #1 team in the nation. A win there and there really is no question about Utah's chances of being named the national champion. In fact, the worst possible set-up for Utah would have been a split national championship with Penn State, though even the Nittany Lions couldn't match the resume Utah would have had in 1994.
Defeating Colorado in the Fiesta Bowl would have given Utah four victories over top-25 teams. Colorado State would have gone on to lose to Michigan in the Holiday Bowl (taking Utah's place) and BYU most likely would have beaten Arizona in the Freedom Bowl. That means the Cougars would have finished 1994 higher than they did under this scenario, while CSU would have probably finished exactly where they actually did. So, where would Utah finish? Anywhere from 2-5, but defeating Colorado probably wouldn't have been enough for the Utes to grab a share of the national championship.
Looking back on this it's clear Utah would have been best served by the 2nd option of scenario two. Playing Nebraska in the Orange Bowl, even if it resulted in a loss, might have altered the future of Utah football. I believe Ron McBride never recovered from that two game losing streak at the end of the 1994 season. It crippled his ability to sustain momentum, something that became a reoccurring problem as the years went on. If the Utes had gone undefeated in 1994, or even 11-1 with that lone loss being against Nebraska in the Orange Bowl, the attitude surrounding the program would have been far different. There is no question in my mind that a season like that would have elevated the Utes to national prominence and instead they had to settle for being good, but never great. That was the epitome of McBride's career at Utah and it all started with that devastating loss to New Mexico in the fall of 1994.
The 1994 season will always be remembered by Utah fans as something special. It was our first real taste of big time football and it's something that has had us clamoring for it ever since. In 2004, we were given the opportunity to live the dream of an undefeated season and a major bowl game. It was spectacular and seeing how close we came then makes it even harder knowing how close we came a decade earlier. Maybe Utah wouldn't have won the national championship if they went undefeated in 1994, but at least if they had gone 12-0, we wouldn't be wondering what if.