SALT LAKE CITY — As far as ESPN's College Football GameDay crew is concerned, this is the place.
This week, anyhow.
Saturday's Utah-TCU game at Rice-Eccles Stadium, featuring two of the top five teams in the Bowl Championship Series standings, will be preceded by college football's premier pregame show.
"GameDay" has set up shop in the stadium's west parking lot, where thousands of fans are expected to watch the show from 7-10 a.m. Several spent the night sleeping in tents alongside the ticket office and extending up 500 South.
Hosting the program is a big deal and a rare one at that. This is Utah's first opportunity since 2004. Showcasing two highly ranked, unbeaten teams — the Horned Frogs are 9-0 and the Utes 8-0 — was where the folks at ESPN wanted to be.
"This was a no-brainer," said show host Chris Fowler. "We don't sit around and think 'Hey, we haven't been to Utah for a while so we better get out there.' You've got No. 3 vs. No. 5 in the BCS. That makes the decision for us.
"Now people in the SEC might not always understand that," he added. "But this clearly is the game to be at."
After taping segments for ESPN programs like "SportsCenter" and "College Football Live" on Friday, Fowler and co-stars Kirk Herbstreit, Desmond Howard and Erin Andrews answered questions from the Utah media. Lee Corso, who traditionally ends the program by putting on the mascot head of the team he predicts will win, was not available.
"It's great to come to Utah, to Salt Lake City, to give this program some national exposure that I believe it deserves," said Howard, a former Heisman Trophy winner.
Herbstreit had similar thoughts
"They've got it going this year and it's good to be back," he said.
The matchup against TCU, Andrews said, obviously makes it "the biggest game this weekend."
It carries big implications for both teams. A possible BCS berth (perhaps a spot in the championship game) and an MWC title will be within grasp of the winner. It's a big showcase for teams from a non-automatic qualifying conference like the MWC.
"I think it's good," Howard said. "It shows that the landscape in college football is starting to level out."
Herbstreit believes a win would especially benefit the Utes.
"Speaking nationally, this game, I think, could do a lot for Utah as far as trying to get a little bit more realistic dialogue going when it comes to a non-automatic qualifier breaking into the BCS," he said. "Even though Utah's won two BCS bowl games, I still feel that they are on the outside looking in."
Herbstreit predicts the Utes will be successful in the Pac-12 next season.
"I think they'll do great as long as Kyle Whittingham is the head coach and as long as they continue to recruit the way they do," Herbstreit said. "… If I were a Utah fan I would be stoked about next year and years to come."
SPECIAL PLACE: Fowler said the "GameDay" crew has special memories of 2004.
"We just reviewed the tape at the end of the show, the pandemonium with Herbstreit wearing the Fiesta Bowl jacket and throwing the Tostitos around," Fowler said. "Excluding just the show, one of my favorite memories ever along the 'GameDay' trail was the scene on the field out here after the Utes beat BYU and they knew they had clinched the BCS at-large bid. I just think that was a standout memory for me in the 20 years of doing the shows."
TEXTING URBAN: Andrews, a Florida alumna, texted former Utah coach Urban Meyer after taping some segments at Rice-Eccles Stadium on Friday. She told him about her first visit to his old stomping grounds. Meyer responded by advising Andrews to talk a walk in the mountains.
"It's God's country," he said. "It's beautiful."
Andrews acknowledged the surroundings were something special.
"It's gorgeous," she said.5 comments on this story
PREDICTIONS: Andrews and Fowler declined to make picks on the game's outcome. Herbstreit, who picked Utah to win last year at TCU, admitted being a little gun shy to make another prediction after the Utes got drilled 55-28 in Fort Worth.
"I'm going to sleep on it and find out which way I'm leaning in the morning," he said.
Howard opted to ride the fence.
"I'm going with the undefeated team in this matchup," he said.
COUGAR TALE: When asked about the strangest things that have ever happened on "GameDay," Fowler brought up the show's only stop in Provo.
"I think Cosmo the Cougar jumping on our set last year in Provo was one of the craziest things we've had happen," he said. "Not planned. Not at all."