Utes could crash big-boys' party

Subversives who enjoy seeing the college football establishment squirm have found their team for 2004. In embarrassing Texas A&M 41-21, the No. 19 Utah Utes announced themselves Thursday night as the leading candidate to trespass into the Bowl Championship Series' exclusionary club.

Updated: September 3, 2004, 1:12 PM ET
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

SALT LAKE CITY -- Subversives who enjoy seeing the college football establishment squirm have found their team for 2004.

In embarrassing Texas A&M 41-21, the No. 19 Utah Utes announced themselves Thursday night as the leading candidate to trespass into the Bowl Championship Series' exclusionary club.

The preseason buzz about this team was no urban myth. Urban Meyer's team is for real, robustly living up to its first-ever preseason Top 25 ranking. And Utah comes with a user-friendly schedule that could lead to a long undefeated run -- and with it a whole lot of squawking about deserving a spot with the big boys in the BCS.

Tommy Hakenbruck
Utah linebacker Tommy Hakenbruck lassos A&M quarterback Reggie McNeal.

The Utes could easily be favored in their final 10 games. Their perceived toughest Mountain West Conference competition, Colorado State, comes to Salt Lake City. The toughest road games could be at San Diego State and New Mexico -- solid competition, but not exactly like trips to Baton Rouge and Norman.

The track record of BCS outsiders suggests that a loss is out there somewhere. But it's never too early to debate about the BCS, and Utah is happy to supply the argument.

And while we're on the subject of unsettling the establishment, alert the Heisman Trophy kingmakers to carve out some space in the discussion for Utah quarterback Alex Smith. After scorching the alarmingly flawed Aggies for 435 yards of total offense (359 passing, 76 rushing) and five touchdowns (three passing, two running), what's not to like?

"If he continues to play like he did tonight," A&M coach Dennis Franchione said, "Utah will be tough to beat."

Smith is at least worth a look -- if the Heisman voters can pry their eyes off the glamour conferences. (History shows that they don't: It's been 14 years since a player from outside the current BCS leagues, BYU's Ty Detmer, won the little stiff-armer.)

This exceedingly well-coached team wasn't going to fall for any BCS or Heisman talk -- not before Labor Day. But Meyer acknowledged that this was a benchmark night for his program.

Playing before the biggest home crowd in school history (45,419), they made the tradition-steeped Aggies look like Sun Belt material. And when the players and student body raucously joined together afterward to sing the fight song, hey, the atmosphere was certifiably big-time.

"I said before the game that this is the biggest game in the history of the program," Meyer said. "To come out and play like we did, in front of a great crowd, with all the students into it, was very rewarding. It was a great night for Utah, and the whole country got to see it."

Here's what Mr. and Mrs. America got to see:

  • Smith flourishing in Meyer's spread offense, which added a new wrinkle in Year Two: the no-huddle. That had A&M fatigued and flummoxed in the first quarter, sucking thin mountain air while chasing what seemed like permanently open Utah wideouts.

    "There's been so much hype and talk about what we're going to do," Smith said. "It's nice to go out there and show we can do it."

    The whip-smart junior crisply hit his intermediate routes, ran with verve and never came close to throwing an interception. And it could have been better. His numbers would have been considerably larger if he'd hit a couple of other deep balls aimed at open receivers. As his coach told him afterward.

    "You stink, Alex," Meyer said with a smile.

    "Those deep balls we missed?" Smith shot back. "We need some faster receivers."

  • Plenty of fast receivers. Steve Savoy scored the first two touchdowns, one on a 78-yard catch-and-run and one on a nine-yard reverse. When he went down with bruised ribs, three other wideouts stepped up to make catches of 38 yards or longer.

  • Defensive coordinator Kyle Whittingham's high-pressure defense. It was a multi-Advil night for A&M quarterback Reggie McNeal, who was hammered into the turf routinely.

    "We got him disoriented for a while," Whittingham said. "The players executed the pressures to perfection. We did swat him around a little bit."

    The whole country also got to see a miserable performance by Texas A&M. At times the Aggies looked like they spent all of August at the pool instead of the practice field.

    A&M ended last year in an ugly swoon, losing five of its last six and being steamrolled in the final three games to finish with its first losing record since 1982. The tailspin picked up where it left off, and suddenly R.C. Slocum is being remembered more fondly in Aggieland. (Alabama fans, try to contain your glee at the struggles of Franchione.)

    While Fran fries on the message boards and talk shows this week, Meyer is being lionized here in the Wasatch Mountains. He's 11-2 as coach of the Utes, and with Rick Majerus retired he owns this campus.

    "Urban 4 President," read one sign in the student section.

    A few feet over another student's sign upped the ante: "Urban 4 Apostle."

    How about Urban 4 Whatever Elite Job Steve Spurrier Doesn't Take? Utah sweetened Meyer's deal -- which reportedly contains outs for three jobs: Notre Dame, Ohio State and Michigan -- after last season, when Nebraska was coach shopping. If this season maintains its early trajectory, athletic directors looking for a coach will be speed-dialing the 801 area code.

    But first things first: Urban Meyer has a group that appears capable of mounting an assault on the BCS' ivory tower. Subversives, unite. This is your team.

    Pat Forde is a senior writer at ESPN.com.

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