The college football world is changing, with teams from outside the six power conferences challenging for BCS berths. This weekend brings the biggest matchup between non-BCS conference teams since ... January, when TCU and Boise State played in the Fiesta Bowl. Saturday, No. 4 TCU and No. 6 Utah will move into the center of the college football universe for three hours, earning the ESPN GameDay stage and impacting the national championship race. Gone are the days of undefeated Mountain West teams operating in obscurity; Utah went undefeated in 2004 and 2008 and TCU has posted four 11- or 12-win seasons in the last five years. Pollsters recognize that these teams can play with anyone. And it's awfully fun when they play each other.
1. So what exactly is on the line? The winner walks to the Mountain West title, but there is more to play for than that. A victory on Saturday could launch either TCU or Utah into the Rose Bowl or national championship game. Should Oregon win out and land in the BCS title game, the Rose Bowl would be obligated to replace its Pac-10 champion with the highest-ranked (in the BCS) remaining qualifier. Boise State would be in the mix as well, but Saturday's win would be such a résumé-builder for either TCU or Utah, it stands to reason the victor would have the edge over Boise. (The Horned Frogs have already hopped the Broncos in the BCS standings.)
2. Utah is going to attack TCU's defense. Utes coach Kyle Whittingham admitted that his game plan against Air Force last week was to grind out first downs and keep the Falcons' triple-option on the sideline. This week, he has a different plan. "We have to open up the entire offense," Whittingham said. "Jordan [Wynn] will have the entire offense at his disposal." Translated, that means Utah will throw first with Wynn, who ranks 11th nationally in passing efficiency with 13 touchdown passes and six interceptions. Utah has two productive backs in Eddie Wide and Matt Asiata, but maintaining long drives against the Horned Frogs is very difficult. TCU is No. 1 in the nation in scoring defense, passing defense and total defense. Being aggressive with an offense that averages 45.2 points per game is the only way to go for Utah.
3. Both teams have revenge on their minds. Two years ago, Utah sneaked by TCU, 13-10, in Salt Lake en route to an undefeated season. TCU held a 416-275 edge in yards, but missed two field goals in the fourth quarter and gave up a touchdown in the final minute. Watching from the sidelines was Wynn, then a high school senior who was committed to Colorado. Wynn changed his mind that night, then wound up facing TCU a year later. The Frogs pounded Wynn and Utah in that meeting, 55-28. A pick-six, blocked punt and fumbled kickoff helped TCU race to a 35-7 lead early in the second quarter, and the game was over. TCU coach Gary Patterson expects this "will be a 60-minute football game," and has said he doesn't care "if it is 43-42 or 3-2. Just gotta win." The Rice-Eccles crowd will be amped and ready to wreak havoc with TCU's play calls. The Utah student section, nicknamed "MUSS," forced five false start penalties on Pitt in the season-opener and six against TCU in 2008. An early lead will help TCU control the atmosphere.
TCU enters the game as a five-point favorite. The Frogs have failed to cover in three of their last four meetings with Utah. Utah has covered five straight times as a home underdog, including the '08 matchup, and the Utes are 5-0-1 against the number in their last six home games. Numbers trend toward Utah.
TCU's defense has held Mountain West opponents scoreless on 52 of 55 possessions this season.
SI.com NFL draft analyst Tony Pauline weighs in with his thoughts on the top pro prospects in this matchup:
CB Brandon Burton, Utah: Burton has turned into one of the biggest sleeper prospects in the nation. He's a good sized cornerback with terrific ball skills and has starting potential for the next level. He'll be challenged by a pair of next-level receivers from TCU as well as the Frogs' unconventional quarterback. Grade: Second-round prospect.
OL Marcus Cannon, TCU: Most scouts project the left tackle as a guard at the next level. Cannon has NFL size, athleticism and strength, but must improve his conditioning if he's to realize his potential. Grade: Third- to fourth-round prospect.
DE/OLB Wayne Daniels, TCU: Daniels is a terrific college pass-rusher with the ability to play a variety of NFL positions. Slightly undersized, he has the quickness and speed to be used as a one-gap defensive end or to stand up over tackle as a 3-4 linebacker. Grade: Third- to fourth-round prospect.
C Zane Taylor, Utah: Taylor has started at center the past three seasons, but also has experience at guard. He lacks classic NFL size and does not posses brute strength, but he's effective blocking in motion. Taylor has the skills to be a utility lineman at the next level for a zone-blocking offense. Grade: Sixth-round prospect.
TCU is the better team on paper, but the home field will be an equalizer in this one. Special teams will be critical. TCU kicker Ross Evans is 3-for-6 on field goals in two games against Utah and 34-for-38 the rest of his career. Utah's Shaky Smithson is the nation's leading punt returner and has taken two back for touchdowns, but TCU returner Jeremy Kerley is just as dangerous. If TCU can break even on special teams, its defense should be the difference in a slugfest. TCU 24, Utah 20