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It couldn't happen. This team went toe to toe with one of the national finalists; it had been the number one team in the land mere weeks ago. And no matter how much the pundits wanted to talk up the Mountain West Conference this season, they simply did not want to give Utah a chance against Nick Saban and his Alabama Crimson Tide. But this was no mid-major weakling with which the virtual home team (distance from Bryant-Denny Stadium to the Louisiana Superdome: 292 miles) would treat as though a kitten's plaything...


This was a team built more in the mold of Utah's undefeated predecessor from 2004-05, led by Urban Meyer and Alex Smith to a 35-7 demolition of Pittsburgh, than the June Jones squad from Hawaii which imploded against Georgia last season. Utah defeated its own share of strong squads. Bowl winners Oregon State (31-28 on October 2), Colorado State (49-16 on October 18), TCU (13-10 on November 6) all fell to the Utes; so too did losing bowl participants BYU (48-24 on November 22) and Air Force (30-23 on September 20)... and now so too did the number-four team in the BCS standings.  With a strong first half reminiscent of USC's conquest of Penn State in the previous day's Rose Bowl, Utah claimed its second undefeated season in five years to be capped with a resounding BCS victory.


Alabama did the right things. Utah was kept one-dimensional all night, with the only rushing highlight coming on the two-yard Matt Asiata touchdown rush in the first quarter. Brian Johnson found favorite target Freddie Brown twelve times for 125 yards to pace the passing game, however, and cracked the Tide defense. Johnson finished with 336 yards through the air and three touchdowns against a passing defense which normally allows opponents only 178 a game and a touchdown less total. Not only was the passing attack humming for Utah, the defense stymied the normally-potent Tide offense repeatedly. Robert Johnson intercepted John Parker Wilson twice, and the highly-touted Alabama offensive line allowed eight sacks (including one that led to a fumble). This was no fluke...


Now we are left with but one undefeated opponent in college football. For all the talk this season of this team or that team being screwed out of its chance to play for the title... for all the ranting for a playoff at the highest echelons of the collegiate sport, from the president-elect on down to the average yahoo out there... we still had a team emerge perfect. The sad thing is, no matter how convincing Utah was this evening, we were never going to hear the pundits and the pollsters clamoring for a split title to reward what this season was unequalled. As Brent Musberger called the Rose Bowl, he yammered on as halftime neared how we might see the AP pollsters split to USC once again despite their missing out on the title game. There have also been calls to split the title should Texas defeat Ohio State in expected fashion and if the Sooners eke out a tight contest against the Gators...


Neither of these situations are as warranted as at least one poll coming out and rewarding that which has proven impossible for all but one of the 119 Division I-A/FBS (take your pick of monikers) schools: 13-0. Kyle Whittingham took up where Meyer left off when he left for greener pastures. Meyer departed Utah for Gainesville in large part because he would have a better shot at playing in the season's pinnacle contest each year by guiding an SEC school than a Mountain West school -- and he will now have his chance to win it all for a second time next Thursday when the Gators (the only other team to defeat Alabama this season, in the SEC Championship) take on Bob Stoops and the Oklahoma Sooners. Whether Whittingham remains in Salt Lake City long enough to still be patrolling the Rice-Eccles Stadium sideline in a future era when the Mountain West stands alongside the SEC, Big XII and Pac-10 in prestige is uncertain...


After all, resounding victories like tonight's inevitably bring the suitors a-callin' at the doorstep. But opportunity knocks to actually help in elevating an entire conference to the top of the top tiers. Whittingham has built a strong team in Utah, one which became the first lower-caste school to bust the BCS hegemony twice in its decade-long history and could easily continue to produce a strong squad both on the Mountain West and the national level. And the competition within the conference is starting to develop to the point of the heyday of the Western Athletic Conference when it consisted of the current MWC members...


While BYU ultimately failed to live up to expectations this season, Bronco Mendenhall will undoubtedly retool his squad to continue to compete with Whittingham; this coaching duel could become one of the most fascinating in-state rivalries in all of college football should both remain at their posts long-term. Add to the mix the first-year success of Sonny Lubick's successor Steve Fairchild at Colorado State, who defeated Fresno State in the New Mexico Bowl... the continued formidability of Gary Patterson's TCU team, which took out the only other squad with a shot at perfection prior to its bowl with its one-point Poinsettia Bowl win over Boise State... the defections of Dave Christensen (Wyoming, formerly Missouri's offensive coordinator), Brady Hoke (San Diego State, formerly Ball State head coach), and Mike Locksley (New Mexico, formerly Illinois offensive coordinator)... and 2007 Mountain West coach of the year Troy Calhoun at Air Force...


The Rocky Mountain region is now a perfect petri dish from which to spawn a new power conference. With the assemblage of talent in the coaching ranks elevating its level, these squads will be better positioned to maintain the talent throughout its recruiting base and sustain growth. The Mountain West Conference is well poised to vault itself to further prominence in the coming years... if these coaches build successful programs and stick around to watch them grow...


Revel in the victory now, Coach Whittingham, for now comes the big decision. You can live up to your words that "the Mountain West is the third-best conference in the country behind the Big XII and SEC" and that "it deserves a secure BCS bid annually" and make the change happen through your team's actions. Whether or not it is Utah in every season or not, the mere fact that a BYU or TCU or Colorado State or Wyoming must be battle-tested against a tough Utes team every year only bolsters the overall conference strength. The clock has struck perfect in the Superdome tonight, but perfection is fleeting and must be continually built upon...

January 3, 2011  02:48 AM ET

Struck perfect again-good job by TCU in winning the Rose.


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