Fiesta loves Utah, has no choice but to pick Pitt

Updated: December 5, 2004, 9:18 PM ET
Associated Press

TEMPE, Ariz. -- The Fiesta Bowl gladly invited BCS-buster Utah on Sunday and had no choice but to accept Big East champion Pittsburgh as the unbeaten Utes' opponent.

Utah, the Mountain West Conference champion, automatically qualified for a Bowl Championship Series invitation by finishing in the top six in the BCS rankings. The Utes (11-0) will be the first team from a non-BCS conference to play in one of the four elite bowls that form the series.

"To break all the barriers that we broke to get here is phenomenal," said Urban Meyer, who will coach his final game for Utah before heading to Florida. "It's a credit to a lot of people."

The Fiesta Bowl could have selected Big 12 member Texas as a replacement for league champ Oklahoma, which will play in the Orange Bowl against USC. But Fiesta officials allowed the Longhorns go to the Rose Bowl and went with Utah.

Pittsburgh (8-3) finished in a four-team deadlock atop a Big East conference depleted by the defection of Miami and Virginia Tech to the Atlantic Coast Conference. Pitt owned the tiebreaker and was guaranteed a BCS spot even though it finished 21st in the BCS rankings.

The Panthers, 19th in the latest Associated Press poll, lost at Connecticut and needed overtime to beat Furman early in the season, but won six of their last seven, including a win at Notre Dame and a home victory over West Virginia.

Fiesta Bowl officials painted as bright a picture as possible, even though that with the sixth and final BCS pick, they had to invite the Panthers.

"They didn't have a great September at all. They had a very, very young football team. But their November and December ranks up there with some of the better teams in the country," Fiesta Bowl executive director John Junker said. "As Big East champion, we understand what the rules are. Were there other possibilities? Candidly, there weren't, but we think we have a very, very intriguing and interesting matchup."

Junker acknowledged the BCS system still needs tweaking, since Pittsburgh made the field, but California, fifth in the BCS standings, did not. One possibility is requiring a BCS conference champion to reach a certain ranking in order to receive an invitation.

The Panthers planned to use their relatively low status as motivation.

"There are a lot of naysayers out there who say we don't deserve it, but we wanted to prove to ourselves and to people around the country that we have a worthy football team, one worthy of representing the Big East Conference," quarterback Tyler Palko said.

Palko threw five touchdowns twice in the last three games. His Utah counterpart, Alex Smith, directs a spread offense that confounded opponents, including Texas A&M and North Carolina.

"Pittsburgh throws the ball as well as any team in the country," Junker said. "And Utah's offense is very, very innovative."

Each team is to receive between $14 million and $17 million, with proceeds generally divided among other conference members.

The Panthers have played in the Fiesta Bowl three times, but not since 1984. Pitt hasn't played in a Jan. 1 bowl game since.

"We didn't back in," Pittsburgh coach Walt Harris said. "We did what we had to do, and we're a hungry football team."

The Utes, fifth in the AP poll, weren't about to badmouth the competition after breaking the BCS barrier.

"I think the entire system will receive some criticism. I sat and watched closely today how everything unfolded," Meyer said. "I don't think the University of Utah will worry about that. There's absolutely no frustration on the part of the University of Utah. Our goal was to get to the Fiesta Bowl. That's where our players wanted to be."

Instead, Utah was looking to simply make good on its opportunity.

"Everybody still talks about all that speculation -- whether we deserve this," Smith said. "There will be no second-guessing us after this. We're going to get our chance."

Each team will be allotted 15,000 tickets. Pittsburgh, traveling across the continent and with a potentially big Steelers game that weekend, might have trouble getting rid of its share. But expect a good chunk of the state of Utah to migrate south, much as Oregon State fans did in their Fiesta matchup with Notre Dame in the 2000 season.

"We expect a huge crowd from the state of Utah," Junker said. "It's hard to put a number on that. We'll see how much red we see in that stadium."

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AP sports writers Doug Alden in Salt Lake City and Alan Robinson in Pittsburgh contributed to this story.


Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press

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