Big-time college football in Utah

The state of Utah will never look to football like most southern states. Down there, it is a religion. They eat, sleep and drink college football. Here, it's more a hobby. That's not to say we don't have our diehards, we do, but they're in less quantity than what you would find in Alabama. 

So when a moment of big-time football arrives on the campus, it is an event. In fact, maybe even looked at in greater terms than what you would find on the campus of the University of Florida because it is such a rare occasion.

I think back to 1997 when the Utah Jazz finally made the NBA Finals. It was as if the entire state shut down for that entire series and the celebration rivaled much of what you would see in cities that actually did celebrate a world championship. 

We were the fans who went to Salt Lake City International Airport at three in the morning by the thousands to welcome home the Jazz from Houston. We were the fans who, after game four of that Finals, stormed downtown and spent the next few hours cheering what amounted to a tie in that series. 

You don't really see that in cities that have been accustom to winning and being at that level year in and year out. Sure, Bulls fans in the 90s rioted and partied in the streets after their championship runs - but getting to the NBA Finals was more a formality than anything else. It's the same with the Lakers today and most certainly the Spurs a few years ago.

For Utah, it was their first glance at being big-time in professional sports. They never were before and they haven't been since that two-year window in the late-90s. But at the time, it was surreal and it was new and it was exciting. 

Similarly, in 2004, the Utes brought big-time college football to the state. You could make the case BYU had done the same and I think their championship in 1984 does deserve mention. However, that happened in a different era. We weren't all connected via the internet and ESPN. Yes, sports news existed back then, but ESPN was nothing like it is today. Its influence was minimal in the college ranks and today, it's arguably the most influential part of the game. Especially now that they have the broadcasting rights to the BCS.

The connection of two technologies - cable and the internet - took college football to new heights. It's grown a lot over the last twenty years and went from a regionally dominant sport to something far more expansive. It's now national and rivals some aspects of professional sports.

So that 2004 season really brought the new-era college football to the 801. It hadn't really popped up during the 90s and early 00s because the Cougars were not the team they were in the 80s and the Utes, while good, weren't exceptional.

Utah was flyover country for big-time football.

Then the Utes went 12-0 and everything changed.

That year, ESPN GameDay made a stop in Salt Lake City for the Holy War. Chris Fowler said that was the time the rivalry went national and he was absolutely right. It was a huge game with a lot on the line for the Utes. They were looking to do something no other non-BCS program had done and it was happening against the team they hated the most. 

The fact Utah was playing BYU, a team that entered the game with a losing record, really reinforced just how far the Utes had come because it proved ESPN wasn't there for the rivalry itself - they were there for Utah. 

Next week, it's very possible the Utes host another College GameDay. If they beat Air Force, their game against TCU will shape up to be the biggest contest in school history. In Mountain West history. In state history.

That last point might draw the ire of BYU fans and I do apologize because, as I said, their success in the 80s was to an extent big-time football. Had that success happened in the BCS era, undoubtedly they would have had some epic showdowns with so much on the line. 

But that really never transpired in the 1980s because there was too big of a talent gap between the Cougars and the remainder of the WAC.

There also wasn't the hope for playing in a better bowl game than the Holiday Bowl - which BYU comfortably made their own for a good two decades. 

A lot has changed since then and assuming the Utes win Saturday, all the attention of the college football world turns to Salt Lake City, Utah. 

That's pretty remarkable. Now I don't want to act like I'm jumping the gun and I know we'll have an entire week to talk about the prospects - but it's the elephant in the room and hard to ignore. Which really makes this game Saturday important in its own right because a loss can eliminate any discussion about TCU and the showdown that would come with November 6th's contest. 

Because of that, the Utes should be more focused Saturday against the Falcons. They can't get complacent and look beyond this game. They do that and it is a moot point. But if they don't, then the big time returns to Salt Lake.

The thought of GameDay returning to Salt Lake City for a contest between two top-ten teams (maybe even top-five) is what it's all about. It's something you don't see often at the non-BCS level. In fact, it's only happened once before in the regular season. In 2008. At Rice-Eccles Stadium. Between Utah and TCU. 

They say history repeats itself and what do you know, the Utes and Frogs are one win away from revisiting their tremendous contest - which, by the way, also happened on November 6th. 

As Utah enters the Pac-12 next year, I believe there will be more GameDay visits to Salt Lake. I suspect we'll experience more top-ten action between two teams and who knows, there might even be a conference championship game right here in Salt Lake City with national championship implications. 

Big-time football found its way to the campus of the University of Utah in 2004. We got a glimpse of how awesome that experience could be and we are fortunate that it never left. We experienced it again in 2008 against TCU and then BYU and God willing, we'll see it again a week from Saturday. 

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