Ready to pick a favorite child? That's kind of what I'm asking and doing here. The Utes are on the verge of their third New Year Six (formerly BCS) appearance, with the Rose Bowl coming on Saturday. Each appearance, the 2005 Fiesta Bowl, the 2009 Sugar Bowl, and the 2022 Rose Bowl, has its own story and journey tied to them and makes each unique and special. Of course, the Rose Bowl hasn't happened yet, but I think the story and journey to the Rose Bowl are amazing and will forever be talked about as perhaps the most storied journey the football program has had. So with that said, which is your favorite? Let's break down each a little bit.
2005 Fiesta Bowl
The original BCS busters, as the Urban Meyer led Utes, stormed through their schedule for an 11-0 regular season. The question about the Utes wasn't whether they were going to go undefeated, but would they break the top six BCS ranking to get into the prestigious bowl that eluded programs for decades, even in the pre-BCS Bowl Alliance.
During the preseason media interviews with Mountain West coaches, many coaches admitted everyone was playing for second place. I remember being shocked that programs acknowledged that they had no chance to dethrone Utah. As each week went by, the results were pretty much predictable, with Utah rolling over team-after-team, so everyone's attention was on the polls, especially the BCS computer rankings. Other storylines were developing as the Utes continued to climb the polls toward that needed top-six spot to qualify for a BCS bowl.
Going into the BYU game, with College GameDay on campus, the news was that both Notre Dame and Florida were pursuing Urban Meyer for their open coaching positions. One night there was a helicopter on the news circling over the Grand America where it is believed Notre Dame was offering the job to Meyer. Also, it was becoming more and more real that star quarterback Alex Smith was likely leaving for the NFL early, likely to be a top pick after his Heisman finalist campaign.
Through the season, the Utes were also battling with Boise State and Louisville (who wasn't in a power conference at the time) for that coveted BCS spot. Boise was behind Utah the entire time, and while they finished the regular season undefeated, they didn't get past Utah at any point. Louisville was a real threat, but Miami and Devin Hester gave them a loss that gave the Utes the distance needed to stay ahead, especially in the middle part of the season.
The 2004-05 season was all about the coronation and the question of whether "they'd" allow Utah into the BCS. The team was about as perfect as possible, and while the Fiesta Bowl was a big party, the opponent was a dud. It was a wild ride, and being the first BCS buster will go down in college football history.
2009 Sugar Bowl
The 2008-09 team was kind of the sequel to the 2004-05 team, especially with some of the players from that Fiesta Bowl team also being on the Sugar Bowl team. The BCS requirements had loosened up, largely thanks to the 2004 team. The ranking needed now was just the top 12 instead of the top six. Could the Utes become the first team to repeat as BCS-busters after Boise went in 2007?
There were multiple questions for this team going into the season. First, could they stay healthy? Brian Johnson had a history of injuries, as did running back Matt Asiata and one of the top wide receivers Brent Casteel. Then, could they keep the momentum they built in 2007? The team won eight of their final nine games and had incredible momentum going into 2008. Lastly, could they navigate a tougher schedule to go undefeated to earn another BCS bid? With highly regarded TCU and BYU, both top-25 teams (TCU top 10), and two power programs in Michigan and Oregon State (who upset No. 1 USC just a week before the Utah game), could Utah make it through clean and healthy?
The biggest storyline from this season was the cardiac nature that the Utes played with throughout the season. There was no coaching drama like under Urban, other than Gary Andersen going to Utah State after the season, but he stayed on for the bowl. The team was unnaturally healthy. And getting into the top 12 wasn't a daunting task. Instead, the Utes liked to keep things interesting by keeping games close, and then Brian Johnson pulled out some magic in the 4th quarter. The games against Air Force and New Mexico were ugly, and the Utes would pull those out by a score. Oregon State and TCU were comebacks that showed the season was one of destiny. The Utes were down to OSU and scored 11 points with just a few minutes left to win the game. Utah couldn't move the ball to save their lives against TCU, but two missed field goals and a legendary two-minute drive gave the Utes their 10th win of the season. And the cherry on top was the blowout of BYU in the finale to cap the 12-0 season. The reward that team ultimately deserved was earning the Sugar Bowl bid against long-time No. 1 ranked Alabama (who lost to Florida in the SEC title game).
2022 Rose Bowl
The storylines were aplenty and emotional for the 2021-22 squad. After a tough 2020 season with so many obstacles, the Utes lost their "franchise" running back Ty Jordan in a tragic accident on Christmas Day. After the 2020 season, many names like Devin Lloyd, Nick Ford, Brant Kuithe, and Britain Covey decided they wanted to finish their careers on their terms and with a championship, so they all decided to come back. The Utes had ample success in the transfer portal to bolster their roster going into the season and plugging any wholes, including adding Baylor transfer QB Charlie Brewer, since Cam Rising was still coming back from shoulder surgery.
Then after high preseason expectations, the Utes start 1-2 and bench Brewer for Rising in the SDSU game after falling behind a couple of scores. Rising rallies the team, but they still fall short. After the benching, Brewer quits the team and goes into the transfer portal, and the ultimate tragedy strikes again with Aaron Lowes passing. The Utes were sitting at 2-2, lost another brother, and wondered what the future held. Shoot, after the SDSU game, I remember writing they better figure things out fast because they weren't a very good team. Then the USC blowout happened. Then the Utes topped ASU to take that tie-breaker. Then after a tough loss to Oregon State, where things looked shaky on defense, the Utes rallied again to beat UCLA and trounced Stanford. Then in storybook fashion, the Utes dethroned the two-time reigning champs Oregon twice in 13 days in blowout fashion to win not only the Pac-12 South but also the program's first Pac-12 title. To assume the throne, the Utes had to go through the champs, and they did it by a combined score of 76-17. The Utes are finally conference champions of the Pac-12, a Power 5 league, and clinched their berth into the Rose Bowl against Ohio State — the exact program that you'd want to see in the Rose Bowl.
With all that said, before the Rose Bowl is even played, here's how I'd rank the three NY6 games:
- 2022 Rose Bowl: I mean, just look at the perseverance.
- 2005 Fiesta Bowl: The first BCS busting season was just a fairy tale.
- 2009 Sugar Bowl: Magicial, but it just falls short compared to the other two.
How would you rank the three runs?