In 2004, the Utes were the Little Team That Could, the small, non-relevant football program from the little Mountain West temporarily busting into the college football elite. They said we were just happy to tag along for the ride, but soon enough, the program would once again return to college football obscurity. Oh sure, there might be one season where they crack the top-20 and maybe win their conference, but as for making that big of a slash on the national scene again? Pretty unlikely. Or so they thought and hell, maybe some of us thought this too.
That was four years ago and now in 2008 the Utes are back in the BCS. In that span, only a handful of teams have made multiple trips to the Bowl Championship Series. Utah's opponent, the team they are 10-point underdogs to, will be making their first trip to a BCS game since the 1999 season. That isn't a slam on Alabama, but more of a statement to what Utah has done.
The Utes went from a probable flash in the pan to now carving a nice niche for themselves in the college football elite. In the past five seasons, Utah football has grown up. It's become the most prominent non-BCS program in the country and one of the most visible in the western United States, regardless of conference affiliation. And yet, even with all their accomplishments, Utah still can't garner the praise they ultimately deserve.
See, this is the problem with college football. A program like Utah can go 12-0 in 2004 and then again in 2008 and they're still presented to the world as the Little Guy. Yes, they don't have the tradition and history like Alabama, but it really is unfair to downplay their accomplishments and unfortunately, like in 2004, a few in the media continue to do so, even knowing this program isn't the same unknown story from four years ago. Yet like their 04 comrades, they are still handicapped not only by the system, but perception.
Perception tells us that Utah does not stand a chance against Alabama. Both teams might be rated in the top-ten, however, that is where the similarities end. It's perception, laced with reality, that the Tide are faster, bigger, stronger, better and smarter than Utah. That perception continues because there is nothing to defy it, except winning on the football field. USC was no less of a program when they lost to Texas in the Rose Bowl a few years ago and neither Florida or Oklahoma took a step back after their bowl losses last year. But if Utah loses in the Sugar Bowl, even if it's by a point, they will be forced back. It will make perception reality, no matter the effort given by Utah. That's the biggest difference between the BCS and the non-BCS, they can get away with bowl losses, Utah can't, even if they tell you otherwise and trust me, they will. In fact, they already are.
They tell us Alabama won't ever live down losing to Utah. That for them, this is a lose-lose situation, because if you win, you're supposed to and if you lose, well you just lost to a non-BCS team, even if that non-BCS team finishes 13-0 and in the top-five. But you know what? They'll live it down. Sure, their SEC brethren with laugh and mock the loss, but by the start of next year, no one will remember. Oklahoma quickly got over its loss to Boise State in the 2006 Fiesta Bowl and though the highlights of that game are played over and over again, it doesn't change the fact it did hardly any damage to the Sooner program. Two years later and they're playing for the national championship and last season, a season after that loss, they won the Big 12.
But for Utah and any non-BCS program, a loss sets everything back. If Utah loses, it will prove they [non-BCS teams] do not belong in the national championship picture this season, next season and in the future. Just look at the ramifications of Hawaii's loss in the 2007 Sugar Bowl. The Utes aren't even from the same conference and are still being compared to that New Orleans debacle.
So Utah isn't just happy to be here. They want a win because they know what a win will do not only for their program, but for the entire landscape of college football. Defeating Alabama sets in motion the discussion that maybe, just maybe, these programs do belong. Yes, you'll have your naysayers who will stubbornly whine about it being a fluke and continue to cling to Hawaii's performance last year, but it will become increasingly difficult to justify the perception that a Utah or a Boise State does not belong. That seems like a lot to lose for a program that supposedly is content with just taking the field against Alabama. Maybe this is the biggest proof yet Utah football has grown up.