November the 6th — it's a date that Utah fans have had circled on their football calendars all season long, and the big week is finally here.
There is a buzz around town this week I haven't felt since 2004, when Utah faced BYU in the final game of the season with a first-ever BCS bowl berth on the line. There are a few similarities between that game and what will take place Saturday at Rice-Eccles Stadium.
ESPN's GameDay Crew rolled into town that Saturday in late November to witness the crowning achievement of Urban Meyer's second and final Utah team and the first-ever BCS-busting non-AQ team (though I'm not sure the term AQ even existed in 2004). That was in the days before ESPN refused to acknowledge the Mountain West Conference, so the fact that the Boys from Bristol are coming to Salt Lake City this week to cover a couple of MWC teams gives you an idea of how big this one really is.
From a rankings standpoint, there's never been a bigger game at Utah. TCU comes in ranked third in the latest BCS poll and Utah has moved up to fifth. The winner of this game likely cements itself a spot in a BCS bowl game, while the loser will likely end up ranked in the Top 12 but playing in bowl game that the college football world will pay little attention to.
The winner of Saturday's game also keeps hope alive for a potential shot at the coveted BCS championship game, depending on what happens with Auburn and Oregon down the stretch.
But first things first — the Game of the Year in the Mountain West Conference and maybe in all of college football.
These are two teams that mirror each other in coaching philosophy, athleticism and style of play. In a game as close as this one is expected to be, what might be the difference? Big-game experience? If that's the case, a slight edge goes to TCU, a team with far more upper-class experience and a squad that played in a BCS bowl game a year ago.
How about coaching? Well, both Kyle Whittingham and Gary Patterson have proven themselves worthy of the title "big-game coaches." I will give the slight edge to Whittingham in this contest. Bowl games and big games are where Whittingham has made his rep, so let's lean that way in the coaching analysis.
Utah, while better last Saturday against Air Force, is still well below par for the season, especially for a team ranked in the Top 5 in the BCS at minus-1. TCU, meanwhile, sits at plus-5 on the season.
To me, this is where the game is won and lost on Saturday. If the Utes can hold on to the football and be on the plus side of that turnover margin, their perfect season will likely continue. If they get a case of the drops and the ball goes on the turf a ton, then it will likely be a day for the Frogs. Expect a slugfest like we saw two years ago here in Salt Lake City, with points at a premium in this one.
Bill Riley can be heard as the radio voice of the University of Utah on game days and also on weekdays from 2-6 p.m. on the "Bill and Spence Show" on ESPN Radio 700 AM.
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