TOM SMART, DESERET MORNING NEWS
SALT LAKE CITY — The bar had been raised, but not even Urban Meyer was fully ready for it. Ten years ago next month, the Utes were in fall camp, and there was no turning back.
The media had been clamoring about expectations after a 10-2 season in 2003. Players were repeatedly asked if they thought they could go undefeated. It was a strange place for a program that had only recently started appearing in bowl games. The Utes were picked to win the Mountain West and featured quarterback Alex Smith, as well as several other NFL prospects. So the questions weren’t untoward.
Still, when a player was asked whether the Utes could run the table, and he answered affirmatively, Meyer reacted as though he had been slapped. “Hats off to you (media) guys,” he said. “You're doing a good job putting (stuff) in guys' minds that I'm not going to tolerate. In all seriousness, let's worry about Utah football. Our edge is we work harder than most people.
“If this continues, the team will be off limits to the media. You're dealing with guys that are probably put in situations they're not used to."
Apparently Meyer wasn’t used to it either, or he wouldn’t have tried to squelch questions that only gave the Utes confidence. But even he couldn’t have known where they would go in the next decade.
They proceeded to win two BCS bowls and join the Pac-12. Now a full-fledged member, they’re just trying to become average. But getting there was a momentous accomplishment. Thanks to Meyer, Kyle Whittingham and athletics director Chris Hill — and a Texas “no thanks” to the Pac-10 — the Utes are in a good place. It’s true the school has only one team championship since joining the league (gymnastics). But if the “Power 5” conferences move to make their own deal, the Utes will be included.
While BYU openly shops for a big conference invitation, the Utes are safe in knowing if they put a top product on the field, the rewards will come. Their days of BCS envy are over.
Ten years, eight bowl games and one conference jump after the fact, they now get exactly what they earn.
In a certain way, the Utes of 2014 have become what many believed about Pitt in 2004. They’re a major conference team, but a disappointment nonetheless. In that Fiesta Bowl season, the Utes were undefeated. Air Force gave them a scare before succumbing by two touchdowns. No one else came close. But when the bowl bids arrived, Pitt was slotted as Utah’s opponent.
The matchup was as sexy as a station wagon. Thanks to three losses, Pitt was only ranked 19th, despite winning the Big East. Utah was favored by 16 points, the largest spread of any bowl matchup.
The Utes used options, shovel passes and reverses to fashion a 35-7 rout. The hook-and-ladder play had never worked in practice, yet worked electrically in the bowl game. Utah was ahead 28-0 before sun hit the horizon. In reality, the offense could have been far worse and the Utes still would have won. The defense was outrageous, logging nine sacks.
Yet none of it helped Utah’s bid for a national championship. It finished fourth in the overall AP standings, in part because its opponent was unimpressive. Still, that Fiesta Bowl got the Utes in the Pac-10’s Rolodex. By the time they had won the 2009 Sugar Bowl, interest in the program had skyrocketed.
In 2014, things have come back to earth. There is only one can’t-lose game on the Utes’ schedule: Idaho State. It’s hard to say just whom the Utes can plan on beating. Fresno State? Washington State? Colorado? None has proven an easy foe.
Clearly the Utes need to think big.
That must have been Meyer’s conclusion back in 2004. He had complained about the media’s leading questions, even though LaVell Edwards dealt with those issues almost every year at BYU. A day after his threat of shutting down media access, Meyer apologized, saying he had overreacted.
Aiming high wasn’t such a bad thing.
Maybe that’s what the Utes need in 2014: to get back to where wild expectations are the best expectations possible.
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