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The real season starts now for undefeated, overlooked Utah

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah -- Upon finishing my player interviews on Wednesday evening, I ducked into Utah's team meeting room to catch the last half-hour of Women's Football 101. The highly popular sessions feature a "chalk talk" with members of the Utes staff, a Q & A with various players and an appearance by a special guest. This week's guest was Utah's director of equipment operations, Kelly Sharitt, who fielded such interesting questions as:

After the game, does everyone take off their jersey and just throw it in the hamper, or how does that work? (Yes, actually, although there are various dedicated hampers for different items of clothing.)

How do you get their helmets so shiny? (Floor wax.)

Did you ever forget to bring a really important item to a game?

"Not as far as anybody knows," deadpanned Sharitt, bringing down the house.

His panache and cool, I found, pervades this squad, which takes its 7-0 record and No. 8 ranking to Air Force on Saturday. I'd spent the day in futile quest for outrage, resentment, high dudgeon. Despite having six players from last year's squad drafted by the NFL (only four teams had more players taken), the Utes are undefeated and have outscored opponents 334-90. Since their season-opening overtime win over Big East-leading Pitt, the Utes haven't had a close game. They're third in the nation in scoring offense (47.7 ppg) and fourth in scoring defense (12.9).

And yet, of the non-BCS conference triumvirate, which also includes No. 2 Boise and No. 4 TCU, the Utes seem to get the least respect. Check it out: On Oct. 9, Utah dismantled Iowa State, 68-27. The result: the Utes dropped from 10th to 11th in the AP poll. It was a good thing they didn't only win by, say, three touchdowns, or they might've fallen from the rankings altogether. A week later, Oklahoma drilled Iowa State 52-nil and jumped four spots. Can you say "double standard"?

"It's nothing new for us," says Zane Taylor, the Utes' brute of center, smiling like the Mona Lisa. "We're used to not getting the respect we deserve." He said it like it was a good thing.

"It's the personality of this team, we like to fly below the radar," says sophomore quarterback Jordan Wynn, who verbally committed to Colorado two years ago, then broke the Buffs' hearts by signing with Utah. The sophomore has completed 70 percent of his passes; his 168.1 pass efficiency rating leads the Mountain West. "In 2008, [Utah] flew below the radar all season," he recalls, "then all of the sudden they were in the Sugar Bowl."

Everyone knows what happened that night. The Utes dominated Nick Saban's Alabama Crimson Tide, 31-17, finishing the season undefeated and ranked second in the nation, behind one-loss Florida. A 10-3 "transition" season followed. "I don't want to say 'rebuilding' -- I hate that term," says Utah coach Kyle Whittingham, who is 12-4 against BCS teams and 6-0 in bowl games since his promotion from defensive coordinator in 2005. "Drives me nuts when coaches talk about being injured, or inexperienced. Nobody cares."

More people will care about Utah -- more people will know about Utah -- over the next three weeks. On Saturday, the Utes take on Air Force, whose three losses have failed to lull Utah into a false sense of security. For whatever reason, this game is always close. The two teams have played 26 times: Air Force has outscored Utah 756-737. That's less than a point a game.

"They have amazing discipline, and mental and physical toughness," says Taylor.

"Which you would expect them to have," adds wideout and punt returner Shaky Smithson, "because they're trained killers."

A week later, Utah hosts TCU in a de facto Mountain West title game, then takes a trip to South Bend. While a win over Notre Dame might not carry the cachet it once did -- back in the days before Lou Holtz became Doctor Lou -- it will be nationally televised on NBC.

Should the Utes win all three of those games, running their record to 10-0, "we could make a serious push" in the polls, says defensive end and co-captain Christian Cox.

The buzz in Salt Lake City is that this Utah team could better than the undefeated '08 outfit. Whittingham says he's never had a squad with better chemistry. Outsiders with preconceived notions about this state are invariably surprised by the Utes' multicultural makeup: a third white, a third African-American, a third Polynesian. Some 40 are Mormons, many of whom have served missions. "All of us just bond together, like it's a family," says cornerback Brandon Burton, "and it shows on the field."

That solidarity was evident at Women's Football 101, when left tackle John Cullen was asked if he and his fellow offensive linemen felt "unappreciated" by the team. Before he could reply, Smithson wisecracked "You BETTER not say yes."

When the laughter subsided, Cullen answered the question: "Obviously, no." Earlier, each player had been asked to identify the most thrilling moment of their Utah careers. "When we won the Sugar Bowl," recalled right guard Tevita Stevens, "watching all that red and white confetti come down on. I think we should do something like that again, soon."

To experience another BCS confetti shower, the Utes must survive a tough three-game stretch. If they do, they'll be officially out ... from under the radar.

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