TRADITIONAL COLLEGE football powers live in a dark cave, denying the evolution of the game--such as when an outsider threatens to play its way into the Bowl Championship Series. With Utah sitting at No. 6 in the BCS rankings and in position for an automatic bid in one of the four BCS bowls, a nationwide referendum of its worthiness has ensued.
The Utes are worthy, all right. Quarterback Alex Smith is a slippery, multidimensional difference-maker who'd be as effective in State College, Pa., as he is in Salt Lake City. They are physical up front on both sides of the ball; they can score and they can defend. Utah spanked Texas A&M in its season opener and beat North Carolina by 30 points--eight more than Florida State did. UNLV coach John Robinson, whose Rebels lost to the Utes last Saturday and to unbeaten Wisconsin earlier this year, says, "Utah is the best team I've played" in six seasons at UNLV.
This BCS door has been knocked on previously. Tulane in Conference USA in 1998 and Marshall in the MAC in '99 went unbeaten, only to fall short of big-money bowls because computer rankings punished them for their weak conference opposition. Strong starts by teams outside the six-conference power structure trigger a predictable response: They don't play in the ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-10 or SEC so they can't be any good.
Actually, they can be. Anyone paying attention in the last two decades has noticed that scholarship limitations and saturation telecasts have made possible the rogue powerhouse. It's a matter of time until one breaks through; four more wins and that somebody should be Utah. --Tim Layden
HOW CAN you trash a team that's done everything asked of it? In addition to whuppin' up on opponents whose behinds they were supposed to kick, the Utes have beaten a team from each of the Big 12, Pac-10 and ACC. I'm impressed.
I'm more impressed, however, by Cal--a team with the best quarterback in the country, Aaron Rodgers (sorry, Alex Smith), and a single loss, by six points to a top-rated Southern Cal team it beat everywhere but on the scoreboard. The Golden Bears are No. 8 in the BCS rankings, two spots after Utah. Also sitting behind the Utes are unbeaten Wisconsin (No. 7) and one-loss Georgia, Texas, Tennessee and Michigan--all surprised to find themselves looking up at a team from the Mountain West.
How did this happen? Well, Utah is ninth in the AP poll, 10th in the ESPN/USA Today poll and ... fifth in the eyes of the computers that account for a third of the BCS ranking. Don't be surprised when those same computers turn on coach Urban Meyer's warriors as the season stretches on. Strength of schedule is no longer a stand-alone element in the BCS formula, but those six computers do take it into consideration. The NCAA rates Utah's 2004 schedule as the 95th most difficult out of 117 in Division I; in fact, only one other team in the Mountain West (Wyoming) has a winning record.
You can't fault the Utes for their weak conference schedule, and I'm not saying they will not have earned a BCS bid should they win out. I'm just saying what's also being said in Madison and Berkeley, Athens and Austin: The Utes are a little higher than they should be. --Austin Murphy