This year marked the first year of the college football playoff, but what if the playoff would have started 10 years ago? What might have happened to the 2004 and 2008 Utah teams?
The 2004 season featured Utah's best player, quarterback Alex Smith, who finished fourth in the 2004 Heisman voting. Utah was also coached by Urban Meyer, who has since won two national championships at Florida and has Ohio State poised to win another in the first College Football Playoff Championship game.
In 2004, five teams finished the regular season undefeated, No. 1 USC, No. 2 Oklahoma, No. 3 Auburn, No. 6 Utah, and No. 9 Boise State. USC and Oklahoma ultimately played for the BCS National Championship, with USC winning 55-19. USC was stacked with talent like Heisman Trophy winner, quarterback Matt Leinart, running back Reggie Bush, and wide receiver Mike Williams among many other talented players. Auburn beat then No. 8 Virginia Tech (the ACC Champion), 16-13. Utah destroyed Big East Champion No. 20 Pittsburgh, 35-7. Boise State fell to Conference USA Champion No. 7 Louisville, 44-40. The other two teams who would have been in contention for a playoff spot would have been No. 4 Texas, who finished the regular season 10-1, only falling to Oklahoma 12-0. Texas ultimately won the Rose Bowl against Big Ten Champion No. 13 Michigan, 38-37. No. 5 Cal, who was snubbed from a BCS Bowl in favor of Texas, only fell to USC, 23-17 during the regular season to finish 10-1. Cal lost their bowl game against No. 20 Texas Tech, 45-31.
Now that the contenders have been covered, who would have gotten in the playoff in 2004? As we saw this year, the selection committee favored conference champions, so it is likely that most of the teams selected would be conference champions. The three undefeated teams from Power 5 conferences (USC, Oklahoma, and Auburn) would have been seeds 1-3 in the playoff. For the fourth seed, it would come down to Texas, Cal, and Utah. Utah was the only one to finish undefeated, but Utah played a much weaker schedule (67th toughest) compared to Texas (28th toughest) and Cal (12th toughest). The notion that a team from a Group of 5 conference could beat a team from a Power-5 conference did not exist until Utah made it to and won the Fiesta Bowl in 2004. Given the disparity in strength of schedule, which it is clear the committee gives a lot of weight, and the unproven nature of Group of 5 teams, I do not think Utah would have made the playoff in 2004. It would likely have been Texas.
Thus, in 2004, like Boise State in 2014, Utah would probably have ended exactly where they were, in the Fiesta Bowl. The only difference might have been a better opponent than perhaps one of the weakest champions of the BCS era.
Utah busted the BCS for the second time after capping a perfect 12-0 regular season. Utah was led by senior quarterback Brian Johnson, the winningest quarterback in Utah football history. Utah beat No. 4 Alabama in the Sugar Bowl, 31-17 to cap off their season.
In 2008, the only teams to finish the season undefeated were No. 6 Utah and No. 9 Boise State. Alabama, who was ranked no. 1 (and undefeated) heading into the SEC Championship game fell to the No. 2, Tim Tebow-led Florida Gators (11-1), 31-20. Florida played Big XII Champion No. 2 Oklahoma (12-1) for the national championship, winning 24-14. Oklahoma was led by Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Sam Bradford. Oklahoma's only regular season loss on the season was to Colt McCoy's No. 3 Texas Longhorns (11-1), 45-35. Texas fell to No. 8 Texas Tech (11-1), 39-33. Texas Tech lost to Oklahoma, 65-21, setting up a three way tie in the Big XII South. Oklahoma was named the South division champion based on being the highest ranked team in the BCS and defeated Missouri to win the Big XII. Texas finished their season by defeating No. 10 Ohio State, 24-21 in the Fiesta Bowl. No. 5 USC (11-1) won at least a share of the Pac-10 title for the seventh straight year. USC's only stumble on the year was at No. 24 Oregon State (though they were unranked at the time) early in the season, 27-21. (Oregon State, of course, lost in Salt Lake City in a thrilling 31-28 last-minute comeback by the Utes.) USC's only other game that was within one score on the year was their 17-10 win at Arizona. USC capped their season defeating No. 6 Penn State (Big Ten Champion) in the Rose Bowl 38-24, in a game that was not as close as the final score indicated. Boise State fell to No. 11 TCU (10-2) in the Poinsettia Bowl, 17-16.
2008 would have been more of a mess to sort out for the committee than 2004, with 10 teams finishing the regular season with 0 or 1 loss. An argument can be made for Florida, Oklahoma, Texas, and Alabama to be the four teams since they finished the regular season ranked 1-4. However, I do not see the scenario playing out like that. Florida won the SEC and would likely have been the number one seed in 2008, but I see the other seeds differently. A human committee that has shown respect for head-to-head wins (Baylor ranked ahead of TCU in the final poll of the regular season this year) would likely rank Texas ahead of Oklahoma given Texas's win over Oklahoma. That would mean that Texas instead of Oklahoma would have represented the Big XII South in the Big XII Championship game against Missouri, which Texas likely would have won, making Texas the best candidate for the number two seed. The committee also favored conference champions, so USC would have likely gotten one of the four spots for winning the Pac-12. USC played the 16th toughest schedule in 2008. The final spot would have gone to either Oklahoma or Alabama. Oklahoma played the tougher schedule (seventh) compared to Alabama (28th). Utah did have several marquee wins (Oregon State, TCU, and BYU prior to the bowl season), but their strength of schedule was, again, weak (56th). The poor strength of schedule would have likely kept the Utes out of the four-team playoff... wait for it... again, leaving them in another NY6 bowl against a good opponent, albeit with no chance for the national title and less chance of finishing No. 2 in the AP, as they did.
While it is unlikely that Utah would have made the College Football Playoff had it existed in 2004 or 2008, their two BCS wins, especially the Sugar Bowl win over Alabama following the 2008 season, challenged the status quo that was the BCS and was a catalyst for implementing the current College Football Playoff.
[All strength of schedule rankings are according to Sagarin Ratings. The strength of schedule rankings include the bowl game.]