Utah ready for Michigan, not concerned with Harbaugh hype
SALT LAKE CITY (AP) New Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh was the talk of college football's offseason as he dominated headlines throughout the spring and summer. The Wolverines' season opener has been hyped because of Harbaugh's return to the college ranks.
The opponent on Thursday night- Utah - has been an afterthought.
And the Utes have taken notice.
''For me, really, it's getting annoying,'' Utah running back Devontae Booker said. ''They can have all the hype. We love being underdogs and proving teams wrong. Honestly, I feel like it's overhyped. I don't care if it was Michael Jackson or somebody. We're just going to go out there and play hard and not worry about any celebrity stuff.''
Harbaugh has been big news since leaving the San Francisco 49ers and returning to his alma mater. One week, he's tweeting Judge Judy. The next, he's photographed shirtless at a satellite camp. Fox Sports even has a promotional bus touring the country dressed in Harbaugh's trademark khakis. There are reports of Fox Sports Go using a ''Khaki Cam'' during the game.
There is no promotional bus dressed as Utah coach Kyle Whittingham.
''You can't let the hype get to you,'' Utah linebacker Jared Norris said. ''You have to prepare like you're preparing for a normal Pac-12 game. It's a big story for newscasters and all that. At the same time, (Harbaugh's) not the one playing the game.
''You just kind of get sick and tired of people not respecting you even though you've been in the Pac-12 for five years and you go 9-4 the previous year.''
Whittingham said the Utes have had Michigan on their minds since December. Many have called it the biggest home-opener in school history and expect it to set a Rice-Eccles Stadium attendance record. Whittingham has done his best to temper the hype, but acknowledged that the game has given the program invaluable exposure to recruits across the country.
However, copies of a calendar published by the magazine Popular Mechanics showed up in the Utah locker room last week and got the Utes' blood boiling. It promoted Harbaugh's return to college football and called the opener a cupcake game.
''It definitely puts more intensity into the game just because of that little statement,'' Utah receiver Kenneth Scott said. ''And plus, we're always trying to prove everybody wrong because everybody sees us as the underdog. We always have that chip on our shoulder.''
Popular Mechanics actually sent the team cupcakes last week as an olive branch. Running backs coach Dennis Erickson, who won two national championships as the coach at Miami, laughed at the absurdity of it all.
''I like cupcakes, so, shoot, I can't wait to get there. I'm hungry,'' Erickson said last week. ''If you can't be physically and mentally ready with a lot of enthusiasm for the first game on national TV against the University of Michigan, then you shouldn't be playing the game.''
Utah has insisted there's no intimidation or trepidation in playing the Wolverines. The Utes went into a stormy Michigan Stadium last season and walked out with a 26-10 win. Anytime a question has been asked about playing the David role to Michigan's Goliath, the Utes rested on the fact that they beat Michigan less than a year ago.
And the Wolverines won just five games in 2014.
''Last year's not talked about,'' Michigan linebacker Joe Bolden said. ''It is what it is. We didn't perform, we didn't do well, we didn't end well.''
Bottom line is Utah knows this is a big game for the prestige of the program. Coaches can go recruiting nationwide and sell prospects on the fact that the Utes host the biggest names in college football in nationally spotlighted games. And not just conference games.
Wins against Michigan in back-to-back years look good on any resume, even if the program is down. Whittingham, however doesn't want it to sound like they're playing a Division I football team for the first time, either.
''I feel like our guys are very battle-tested and have been exposed to enough big-time atmospheres and hostile crowds,'' Whittingham said. ''No more significant than any other Pac-12 game or any other games that we have.
''What's significant is having Michigan leave the Big House and come here to play. That would have never happened five or six years ago and beyond. ... Are they any bigger than Oregon, USC, UCLA? No.''