Utah tears down the BCS wall

11/21/2004 - BYU Cougars Utah Utes

SALT LAKE CITY -- About the only guy who didn't understand the magnitude of what Utah accomplished Saturday night is coach Urban Meyer, the guy who led them to the accomplishment.

"I apologized to our team," Meyer said. "I have no concept of the BCS. Not one time was that brought up."

Meyer was too busy inhaling the sweet fragrance of the Utes' 52-21 wipeout of archrival Brigham Young, and of finishing 11-0. He had no idea of the history that his team made amid swirling flurries in Rice-Eccles Stadium.

Hit the rewind button to last spring, when the Coalition conferences -- the don't-call-us-non-BCS conferences -- demanded that the BCS bowls provide more access. The bar, set at a final BCS ranking of sixth or better, was too high, the Coalition said. The schools threatened lawsuits. They threatened Congressional investigations provided by their friendly neighborhood senators.

That's the most amazing thing about the victory over the Cougars. The Utes did what couldn't be done. Utah and every other team in the Coalition were set up to fail. I'm not trying to go all Jackie Robinson on you, but the Utes tore down a barrier that the BCS conferences and their bowl partners didn't want torn down.

College football's version of apartheid began in 1998, with the establishment of the bar at No. 6. The conferences set the bar there, supremely confident in the knowledge that pigs would fly before any Coalition team would be good enough to trigger an invitation.

The BCS conferences lived in the big house, and the rest of the leagues in Division I-A were sharecroppers, never able to meet the onerous conditions set to earn an automatic bid worth at least $14 million.

Sixth in the BCS Standings may as well have been second. Tulane went undefeated in 1998 and only made it to 10th. BYU won its first 12 games in 2001 and never threatened the top six.

The money at stake is real. That's why the Coalition conferences -- the Mountain West, Conference USA, Mid-American, Western Athletic and Sun Belt -- banded together and convinced the major conferences to lower the barrier. Beginning in 2006, a team from the Coalition must finish 12th, or possibly as low as 16th, to get a bid to one of the five BCS bowls.

"Twelve is a very fair number," Mountain West commissioner Craig Thompson said.

Utah didn't wait for the barrier to be lowered. Instead, they pulled to an inside straight, legged out an inside-the-park home run, found a front-row parking space at the mall on Thanksgiving Friday.

"This team didn't get here by luck," free safety Morgan Scalley said. "this team didn't get here by a weak schedule. This team got here by character and how hard we worked. We didn't let the BCS dictate how we played."

Well, there was luck involved, and Utah played well enough to capitalize on it. For instance, the Utes' non-conference schedule this year included Texas A&M and North Carolina, both teams on their way to bowls. Utah beat them by 20 and 30 points, respectively.

"When I scheduled this schedule six or seven years ago," Utah athletic director Chris Hill said, "I thought, 'Maybe it's a little too hard.' We played hard. Our team did everything we had to do. They had to have a bit of luck from other teams losing (in order for) people to say, 'Hey, they are pretty good.' To go undefeated in Little League is hard, and we did it going away."

The undefeated and one-loss teams that threatened to prevent Utah from climbing to the top six all got beat. A week ago, Wisconsin and Georgia got beat. On Saturday, Michigan got beat. No one could stop Utah on the field, and no one could stop them off the field, either. The AutoZone Liberty Bowl, which has a contract calling for it to receive the Mountain West champion, agreed last week to bow gracefully and get out of Utah's way.

Meyer, after saying he didn't understand how the BCS worked, sounded knowledgeable when he began talking about the difference between the haves and the have-nots.

"I lose three coaches to BCS schools because I can't pay them," Meyer said. "When you lose a recruit, and you have better facilities, and he looks you in the eye and says he's going there because they are in the BCS, well, we're BCS now."

Utah is likely to play in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl, although the permutations of the final BCS ranking are such that the Utes could easily end up in the Nokia Sugar Bowl. Either way, they will make history. They struck a blow for college football's have-nots. Utah did what not even its own administrators thought it could do. It became a have.

"You have a couple elite of elites," Meyer said. "Maybe it is Oklahoma and USC.

"Everyone else, who plays the best, stays healthy and takes care of the football can win. If you don't believe that, you don't understand college football."

Now that the season is over, Meyer said he would undertake learning how the BCS works. Were he ever to leave to coach at a BCS school -- hmmmmm -- that might come in handy. In the meantime, he and the Utes can take pride in the history that they made.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Send your question/comments to Ivan at ivan.maisel@espn3.com. Your e-mail could be answered in a future Maisel E-mails.