Commentary

Whittingham, Utes believe they deserve consideration for national title

Originally Published: January 2, 2009
By Heather Dinich | ESPN.com

NEW ORLEANS -- Utah quarterback Brian Johnson deserves an explanation.

After all, he has a very valid question.

"What else do we have to prove?" asked Johnson, after leading his team to a stunning, convincing 31-17 win over Alabama in the Allstate Sugar Bowl.

The answer should be nothing. Should be.

Johnson did a remarkable job of orchestrating the spread offense against one of the best defenses in the country, and it took precisely one quarter for Utah to establish which team was better. No, it wasn't the big, bad SEC program steeped in tradition and oozing with talent. It was the unheralded Utah Utes, the only undefeated FBS team left in the country. And they were up 21-0 after their first three possessions. Surprise.

These guys aren't BCS Busters, they're BCS bullies.

After Boise State's win over Oklahoma in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl, and Utah's win over Alabama, there is plenty of indisputable video evidence to overturn the notion that the non-BCS schools aren't deserving of at least a shot at playing for the national title. It's not like Utah beat Pittsburgh (that was sooo 2005). Utah dominated a national championship-caliber opponent. An SEC team that was ranked No. 1 in the country during all of November.

[+] EnlargeKyle Whittingham
Crystal LoGiudice/US PresswireKyle Whittingham believes the Utes can hold their own with any team in the country.

Utah coach Kyle Whittingham thinks he has a national championship-caliber team, too, and would like the chance to prove it.

"Well, I don't know why they wouldn't deserve consideration [to play in the national championship game]," Whittingham said. "Somebody has to explain to me why they wouldn't. There is only one undefeated team in the United States of America right now in Division I football, and it's these guys right there.

"All you can do is go out and beat the people that are on your schedule, beat the people you play against, take care of business and do what you can do and that's about all you can do. All the other things are beyond your control."

Alabama was not beyond Utah's control.

The Utes put on a show with their dazzling defense, and accomplished something few teams were able to do all season: stop Alabama's smashmouth running game and pressure quarterback John Parker Wilson the entire game. He was sacked eight times and threw two interceptions.

Yes, Utah was playing like it had something to prove, and Alabama coach Nick Saban helped to motivate them a wee bit.

[+] EnlargeStevenson Sylvester
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesThe Utes have a number in mind for their ranking.

Saban infuriated some of the Utah players with his comment that the Crimson Tide were the only team to start off 12-0 that "plays in a real BCS conference."

Saban apologized if anyone was offended by that, but it was four quarters too late.

It's hardly as if Alabama was Utah's first victim. The Utes beat a TCU team that was ranked No. 12 at the time, No. 14-ranked BYU, Michigan and an Oregon State team that had just come off a huge win over USC. Utah became the first program from a non-BCS conference to win two BCS bowls. This is its second undefeated season. In 2004, Utah was the original BCS Buster and beat Pittsburgh in the 2005 Fiesta Bowl. This year's No. 6 ranking in the final BCS standings is the highest a team from a non-BCS conference has ever had.

The Utes have had a strong enough season that they should earn a top-15 ranking in the 2009 preseason poll, and that's one of the first steps toward sneaking into the top two spots in the final BCS standings.

They also have to go undefeated, again. And other programs, like Florida and Oklahoma, have to lose.

A major hurdle, though, would be for the Mountain West Conference to earn an automatic bid to a BCS bowl game. This was the first of a four-year evaluation period for the MWC.

"I don't know what we have to do," Mountain West Conference commissioner Craig Thompson said. "We keep proving. We take the challenges as they're presented. It's one step at a time. We've made great progress. … The goal 10 years ago is no different than the goal today, and that's to be an automatic qualifier in a BCS bowl game each year.

"You can't do any better than being 13-0 and winning a BCS game. Do we have to do that three more times to gain automatic qualification? I hope not."

[+] EnlargeBrian Johnson
John David Mercer/US PresswireBrian Johnson torched the Tide for 336 yards and three touchdowns in the Sugar Bowl.

The players certainly aren't holding their breath.

"To tell you the truth, I don't think they'll ever give it to us," defensive end Koa Misi said. "We're the Mountain West. There's not much else we can do other than beat Alabama, and I still don't think we're going to get it. I really wish we could go on and play in a national championship, but this is as good as it gets for us, and this is great."

Johnson didn't hesitate for a second when asked where he would rank Utah in the final polls: No. 1, of course.

"I think people get caught up in looking at the athletes and the glamour of a name that program carries," Johnson said. "But that's the reason why you play the game. … And you know, people take this stuff personally. This team, it's a blue-collar team. We work for what we get, and this is something we wanted really bad. So I think we deserve it, and I definitely think without question we are one of the best teams, if not the best, in the country."

They might be. Oklahoma, Florida, Texas and USC would disagree. At the very least, though, Utah has earned the right to find out.

Heather Dinich covers college football for ESPN.com. You can contact her at Espn.hd@hotmail.com.