SALT LAKE CITY — Twice in the past six years, the Utah football team has reached this point of the season with a record of 8-0, and both times the Utes went on to unbeaten seasons — 12-0 in 2004-05 and 13-0 in 2008-09.
With an 8-0 record heading into Saturday's huge game against TCU, this year's Ute team has a chance to match those teams and go undefeated, although it won't be easy, with the game against the No. 4-ranked Horned Frogs, followed by games at Notre Dame, San Diego State and a home finale against BYU.
So how does this year's Ute team compare with the other unbeaten teams of this decade?
"All three teams had very good work ethics (and) ability to focus one week at a time, which is so critical and one of the primary characteristics to get this far without a loss," said Whittingham. "Each one had their own personality."
This year's team is the highest ranked of the three at No. 6 in the two major polls and No. 5 in the BCS rankings, compared to No. 7 (AP) for the 2004 team at this point and No. 10 (AP) for the 2008 team.
Like the 2004 team, the 2010 team plays three BCS conference teams, while the 2008 team played just two during the regular season (Michigan and Oregon State).
As for margin of victory, the 2004 team won every game by at least two touchdowns, while the 2008 team had four nail-biters, winning three games by three points and one by two.
This year's team has been a mixture of those two with six blowout wins by an average of 40 points and the other two coming by three (Pitt) and five (Air Force) points.
Let's take a look at some of the common characteristics and differences of the three teams:
Running back duos
Both the 2004 and 2008 teams had two strong running backs who shared time, as Eddie Wide and Matt Asiata are doing this year.
In 2004, it was Marty Johnson and Quinton Ganther, who rushed for 802 and 654 yards, respectively.
In 2008, it was Asiata and Darrell Mack, who ended up with 716 and 562 yards, respectively.
Through eight games this year, the two senior running backs are amazingly equal, with Wide gaining 491 yards on 98 carries and Asiata getting 488 yards on 104 carries.
Strong quarterbacks and receivers
Each team had a strong quarterback and a bevy of talented receivers.
In 2004, Alex Smith — who finished fourth in the Heisman voting — had several targets such as Paris Warren, Steve Savoy, John Madsen and Travis LaTendresse.
Brian Johnson, the MWC offensive player of the year in 2008, went to Freddie Brown, Brent Casteel and Bradon Godfrey.
This year, Jordan Wynn has a chance to be the all-MWC QB and has several top targets such as Jereme Brooks, DeVonte Christopher and Shaky Smithson.
Each of the three unbeaten teams have featured kickers who rarely missed their kicks.
In 2004, the Utes used freshman David Carroll, who was perfect on the year, making all five field goal attempts and all 49 PAT tries.
The 2008 team featured all-American Louie Sakoda, who made 22-of-24 field goals and converted on 56-of-57 PATs.
This year, the Utes have reliable Joe Phillips, who is 9-of-10 on field goals after his first missed attempt Saturday against Air Force, and is 47-of-48 on PAT tries with the one miss, which was blocked.
When asked what characteristic all three Utah teams shared, Ute assistant Morgan Scalley said "leadership."
Scalley was one of the leaders of the 2004 team and has been a coach for the other two Ute teams.
"Players taking ownership is the biggest similarities in all three teams," he said. "You need senior leadership that holds people accountable with guys that buy into the process. Obviously you have to have talent and you have to have depth, but you also need leadership."
This year's team has senior leaders such as Zane Taylor, Matt Asiata, Eddie Wide, Caleb Schlauderaff, Christian Cox, Chad Manis, Justin Taplin-Ross and Lamar Chapman.
Most athletic teams aren't successful without good team chemistry. How many teams with several "stars" fail to win titles, while teams with lesser talent, but good chemistry — such as this year's World Series champion San Francisco Giants — win it all?
All year long, Ute players and coaches have talked about the team's unity, but Whittingham says this team is special.
"Each (of the unbeaten teams) had good team chemistry, but this year's team might be the best," he said.
Both the 2004 and 2008 teams had several future NFL stars.
Of course, Alex Smith was the No. 1 draft choice after the 2004 season, and several others went on to play in the NFL, including defensive linemen Sione Pouha and Jonathan Fanene, offensive lineman Chris Kemoeatu, safety Eric Weddle and receivers Paris Warren and John Madsen.
The 2008 squad featured future NFLers Paul Kruger, Sean Smith, Brice McCain, Stevenson Sylvester, Robert Johnson and Koa Misi off the defense as well as receiver Freddie Brown and offensive lineman Zane Beadles.
It remains to be seen how many players from this year's team will end up in the NFL, but the Utes don't seem to have as many sure-fire stars, at least among the upperclassmen.
As Whittingham puts it, "We have a lot of players who are unselfish. They're a real a blue collar, lunch-pail group."
Brian Johnson, who quarterbacked the '08 team, was the backup QB in '04 and is now Utah's quarterbacks coach, prefers not to compare the three teams and won't say which one was the best.
"What you don't want to do is sell this team short of what they're doing," he said. "The '08 team is different than '04, and this team is different, and I think you do a disservice to this team by trying to compare. This a great group that knows when to have fun, when to lock it down, and they're sold on coach Whittingham and the process of what we do."
As for Whittingham, he just says, "There's too much football left to say this team is better than another one."
We'll find out a lot about just how good the 2010 team is come Saturday afternoon.
No. 4 TCU (9-0, 5-0 MWC) vs. No. 6 Utah (8-0, 5-0)
Saturday, 1:30 p.m.
TV: CBS C
Radio: 700 AMPoll question
Which Utah team is/was the best?
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