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Utah versus the Pac-10 #3: Oregon/Cal '03

I'm cheating a bit here. Since there are only five slots available and more than five games to choose from, I thought it would be appropriate to merge a couple games together. I guess you could say that these two are 3A and 3B because they both played an important role in Utah's climb to success under Urban Meyer. 

discussed the Cal game in length last year, so instead of rehashing what I posted in 2010, you can just go re-read that article because I think it conveys what this entire list is about. 

Both these games were important. Cal was a week after a difficult loss to Texas A&M and really gave the program a spark in the wake of that devastating defeat. Oregon, though, was perceived as a bigger win on the national stage because the Ducks had been a proven winner for over a decade under Mike Bellotti. Cal, on the other hand, had yet to really emerge under Jeff Tedford - that would actually come during the '03 season, specifically when they upset the Trojans, giving them their lone loss of the season. 

So I guess it's perfectly fitting that two of the biggest wins of the Urban Meyer era came within a few weeks of each other and against the Pac-10. 

As I mentioned, the Utes beat Cal the third week of the season after losing to the Aggies in College Station a week earlier. That loss came in the closing moments of the game and cost them their starting quarterback, Brett Elliott.

Just winning that game was a huge accomplishment for a program that, a few seasons earlier, lost on the road to an awful Cal team during an awful stretch of the 2000 season. 

Who knows what would have happened had the Utes lost to the Golden Bears. Maybe they bounce back nicely and still win the Mountain West and subsequently bust the BCS a year later. Then again, maybe the loss resurrects past demons and Meyer has difficulty bringing them back from the brink. It's hard to imagine such a scenario with how great a coach Meyer has proven to be, but college football is a fickle mistress and a season is as easily lost as it seemingly can be won. 

Which is why I feel inclined to clump these two games together. They're more important as a whole than separate entities. Cal was the beginning and Oregon was the validation. 

You see, as I already pointed out, the Bears were not known at the time of their defeat to the Utes. In fact, they had just lost to Colorado State a week before at home - which dropped them to 1-2 heading into their national televised showdown against Utah. 

At the time, no one really knew what to expect from Cal. Certainly no one expected an upset of SC two weeks later. 

In terms of in the moment, Oregon was much more impressive. The Ducks were ranked, entered the game 4-1 and had, two weeks earlier, upset #3 ranked Michigan. Sure, a lopsided loss to Washington State was sandwiched between their big victory over the Wolverines and the Utah game - but it didn't take away from the overall greatness of the win.

It was, after all, Utah's first win over a ranked opponent in four years and pushed them to 4-1 - only two victories away from most likely assuring the school of a winning season, something no one predicted at the start of 2003.

More importantly, though, was the fact Utah had now knocked off two good Pac-10 teams. 

It really validated the season to that point and put the Utes closer to the top-25 and all but erased the memories of their defeat to Texas A&M earlier in the year. 

The game also proved to be Alex Smith's coming out party. It was only his third start and yet, against a powerful Ducks team, he threw for a then-career best 340 yards and two touchdowns.

After the game, receiver Steve Savoy provided an eerily prophetic quote: "This could be the start of something big for us. We're really rolling now."

I don't think he could have ever expected what was to come - but what an awesomely spot-on quote about a program that, a year earlier, was facing a six-game slide. 

Of course, the Utes would go on to do some big things - winning the first outright conference championship in 50 years and then, a year later, busting the BCS. 

And it really all began with those two wins against Cal and Oregon.