SALT LAKE CITY — A key Utah football game in November. Bowl Championship Series prospects on the line. And thousands of Ute fans cheering on ESPN's College GameDay broadcast from outside Rice-Eccles Stadium in the shadows of the picturesque Wasatch Front.
It's 2004 all over again in 2010, as No. 5 Utah hosts No. 3 TCU in a battle of unbeatens doubling as Saturday's drawing card for ESPN's trademark college football pregame show.
"It's so exciting because everyone on campus is talking about GameDay," said Ute fan Ellen Stemle. "It's a buzzword."
When GameDay comes calling, there's never an attitude of "been there, done that."
It's an encore performance, a repeat honor for longtime Utah fans. And except for students working on the "two-term plan" — Bush's and Obama's — it's a new rush for the U. students in the stadium's much-beloved MUSS section.
"If we win this game, I probably won't sleep for a week or two, I'll be so excited," said MUSS president T.J. McMullin. "It'll just open up so many possibilities. We'll just keep winning and then we'll win the Rose Bowl before we even get into the Pac-12. … It's a good time to be going to school here."
And it's a great symbiotic relationship. Fans find themselves within earshot of GameDay's Chris Fowler, Kirk Herbstreit, Lee Corso and Desmond Howard, while ESPN enjoys a backdrop of masses of fans mugging for the camera.
Saturday's visit is GameDay's third to the state, counting the 2004 Utah-BYU game and last year's BYU-TCU contest in Provo. Both times earned rave reviews for the scenic settings.
"It provides a great visual backdrop," said ESPN publicist Michael C. Humes. "The fans are great — they're passionate, and they know their football."
Even Utah coach Kyle Whittingham has acknowledged "the event."
"With the ESPN College GameDay crew rolling into town, this will be a great opportunity for our fans, and especially the MUSS, to share in the national exposure that comes with a game of this magnitude," he said.
The university is encouraging GameDay spectators to arrive by 6 a.m. for the 7 a.m. start, with general parking available in the Huntsman and Merrill Engineering lots. The Guardsman lot will open at 3 p.m. today for overnight tailgating and camping; camping may be allowed in other areas as well.
First, let's dispel a couple of local GameDay myths.
It's not a Saturday-only effort — GameDay will tape segments Friday afternoon.
Host schools don't pick up additional broadcast revenue— but GameDay limelight is near priceless when it comes to appeasing fans and appealing to would-be recruits.
Also, no bias is given to games scheduled on the ABC-ESPN networks or to conferences aligned with such networks — GameDay visited three Mountain West Conference campuses in a four-week span last year.
So next year's changes — Utah to the Pac-12 and BYU as an ESPN-contracted independent — doesn't enhance either's future prospects. GameDay goes to the notable games featuring winning teams and worthy matchups.
"We're just setting the table," said Fowler, GameDay's host. "It's the game that's the draw."
ESPN long had the Utah-TCU contest on its radar. "They both kept winning," Humes said, "and it kept moving up the list."
The game broadcast itself — on CBS College — will be available as part of a two-week free preview on CBS-C's cable and satellite distributors, including Comcast, DISH Network, Cox and others.
A quick history of GameDay's evolution: The program dates back to 1987, with Tim Brando as host and Corso and Beano Cook as analysts. GameDay didn't broadcast from an on-campus site prior to 1993, Corso didn't debut his mascot-headgear schtick for another three years, and week-after-week GameDay onsite road shows weren't a regularity until three years after that.
So, what's different now compared to 2004 and 2009?
The program features a few more faces — Howard joined the Fowler-Corso-Herbstreit trio as a contributor in 2005 and Erin Andrews came aboard this season.
And GameDay made its "celebrity guest picker" a regular feature last year — former BYU coach LaVell Edwards projected game winners in Provo along with Herbstreit and Corso. When Corso underscored picking a TCU win by donning the Horned Frog mascot head, Edwards countered by putting on the Cosmo mask.
"It's the first time ever we've had the guest picker put on the headgear," chuckled Fowler.
This weekend's question: Who will be Saturday's Utah-aligned guest celebrity?
In '04, then-coach Urban Meyer was a late-show guest – if not a guest prognosticator – denying reports of an agreement to take the vacant Florida job. "I plan on being the coach here," he said, adding he wasn't looking to leave the Utes.
The program's length has grown over the years — in 2004, it was 90 minutes; last year, two hours; this year, a whopping three hours. That means a chilly, near-dark 7 a.m. start here so the program can take to the East Coast airwaves at 9.
At both previous GameDay stops in Utah, crowds were estimated at 4,000 to 5,000. In 2004, the Ute faithful braved subfreezing temperatures for a morning show that ended seven hours before the actual game's kickoff. Last year, Cougar fans battled chilly, wet weather for a GameDay starting even earlier and kickoff even later.
The year's unseasonably warm weather and the broadcast's closer proximity to the 1:30 p.m. Utah-TCU kickoff could greatly multiply the Utes' previous GameDay attendance. But to break the program's unofficial record of 18,000 — set earlier this season at Missouri — Ute fans would have to approach the 20,000 figure that Meyer promised six seasons ago.
No matter the final number of spectators, Sean Davenport knows being GameDay's featured broadcast site is something special.
"They don't just pick it out of a hat — they know how big this game is. It's a big deal," said Davenport, a MUSS vice president. "It'll be great for Salt Lake, too. It's going to be organized chaos."
Date, Match-up, Corso's pick, Winner
Nov. 20, 2004 BYU at No. 5 Utah Utah Utah, 52-21
Oct. 24, 2009 No. 10 TCU at No. 16 BYU TCU TCU 38-7
Nov. 14, 2009 No. 16 Utah at No. 4 TCU TCU TCU, 55-28
Nov. 6, 2010 No. 3 TCU at No. 5 Utah