To begin this series on what-if moments in Utah Utes sports history, we start with easily the biggest what-if moment. Urban Meyer helped put Utah Football on a national stage when he took over as head coach in 2003 after leading the Bowling Green Falcons to prominence when he took over in 2001. Urban Meyer brought a unique style to the game as he implemented his spread offense with an option-style attack. The Utes had gone 5-6 in 2002, and in Urban Meyer’s first year, they went 10-2 en route to a 17-0 victory in the Liberty Bowl over Southern Miss. In 2004 the Utes went undefeated and became the first BCS buster as they received an invite to the Fiesta Bowl and dominated Pittsburgh before a national audience.
Urban Meyer was the hot coaching target throughout the 2004 season and received a lot of interest from Notre Dame and Florida. In fact, in previous interviews, Urban Meyer had stated that Notre Dame was a dream job, and he even had a clause in his contract that allowed him to go to Notre Dame if the opportunity became available. However, Urban Meyer took the job at Florida, much to the disappointment of Utah fans everywhere. We all know that Urban Meyer led Florida to a national championship in the 2008-2009 season and nearly went back to back in 2009 had it not been for a loss to Alabama in the SEC Championship game; however, the question remains what would Urban Meyer have accomplished had he stayed at Utah.
Urban Meyer had signed a contract that would have kept him at Utah through the 2010 season. More importantly, his coaching staff would have remained intact at the University of Utah for the foreseeable future. At the time, Kyle Whittingham was the defensive coordinator, Mike Sanford the Offensive Coordinator, the Defensive Line coach Gary Andersen, and Dan Mullen was the QB Coach. With that group, four individuals went on to have head coaching experience and success in college football. Dan Mullen followed Urban Meyer to Utah when he accepted the job. At the same time, Mike Sanford left for the UNLV job, and Kyle Whittingham and Gary Andersen stayed at Utah for the next four years together before Andersen took the head coaching job at Utah State in 2009.
In this scenario, I would imagine that Mike Sanford still left in 2005 to take the job at UNLV, which means that Dan Mullen gets promoted to Offensive Coordinator. Kyle Whittingham would then head to BYU to take over as head coach and thus take the Holy War to new heights and put the game on the national radar. Gary Andersen would be promoted to Defensive Coordinator. Given this coaching staff, the Utes are able to remain competitive despite losing both their offensive and defensive coordinator.
In 2005 the Utes went 7-5 with a win in the Emerald Bowl despite Brian Johnson having a season-ending injury against New Mexico, which ultimately completely kept him out of the 2006 season. It’s important to note that Dan Mullen recruited Brian Johnson, and I think it’s important that with him remaining at Utah, Brian Johnson will see great success earlier in his Utah career. I think the Utes will go undefeated again during the regular season with Urban Meyer. Unfortunately, due to the success of USC and Texas, they both earn a trip to the national championship game, and the Utes earn a trip to play Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl. Unfortunately, I think the Utes come up short and lose that game.
In 2006 the Utes still lose to Boise State (despite Brian Johnson being able to play) and finish with two losses that season including the game at UCLA. The Utes end up in the Vegas Bowl and finish with a bowl victory. In 2007 the Utes finish with two losses as they are still struggling to figure out life after Eric Weddle but re-group to finish the season strong en route to another bowl victory.
With Urban Meyer at the helm in 2008, the Utes finish the season undefeated and earn another trip to a BCS bowl game and finish the season undefeated.
Despite Urban Meyer’s contract situation in this scenario, I think that Urban Meyer once again is heavily recruited by Notre Dame to take over after Charlie Weis is fired. Notre Dame then hires Urban Meyer and Dan Mullen takes over as head coach for the Utes. With the Utes defense’s success, Gary Andersen is hired at Utah State as their head football coach.
Given the success of the Utah program, I think it’s entirely feasible that the PAC 12 pushes to add the Utes earlier, and they ultimately join the conference in 2010 as opposed to 2011 still, along with the Colorado Buffaloes.
Dan Mullen is able to find success with the Utes, and given the program’s success since 2004, he is able to make a smoother transition to the PAC 12 Conference. The Utes are then able to win the PAC 12 South Division in 2011 and head to the conference championship game. The Utes ultimately come up short in the title game to Oregon.
With Dan Mullen at the helm, the Utes are still able to succeed since joining the PAC 12 Conference, and he ultimately stays at the program for the foreseeable future, and the Utes continue to be a dominant force in the PAC 12.