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Brad Rock: For a change, conference game really is what matters

Published: Sunday, Aug. 2 2015 6:46 p.m. MDT

Utah's Eddie Wide scores against Colorado State last month. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News) Utah's Eddie Wide scores against Colorado State last month. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY — Finally, truth in advertising.

For decades, coaches have used the standard line about conference championships being their teams' No. 1 goal, always telling us that conference games mattered far more than others.

It always sounded slightly disingenuous. Was beating New Mexico honestly bigger than beating Michigan, Texas A&M or Oregon?

Winning conference titles was all good, but where did that lead?

To the Las Vegas Bowl or Liberty Bowl, maybe not even that.

Beat Ohio State and you were going places.

It also raised the question of why the Utes seldom won such games until recent years. Maybe they were too worried about Wyoming, San Diego State, UNLV and Colorado State.

But along came 2010 and suddenly the label fit. Saturday's Utah-TCU game actually is the Utes' most important game of the year — and it's a conference game, too. It's No. 3 in the all-important BCS rankings (TCU) vs. No. 5 (Utah). It's for the conference championship, but also should be for a BCS bowl and could even be for a shot at the national championship.

At last, a conference game and a major national game are the same thing.

"This time," said cornerback Brandon Burton, "it's like more than a conference game. I think this is probably for all the marbles, you know? There's some big talk about BCS and the national championship, so I think if we can win this game, we'll be on the right path. We want to play (for) that national championship."

Not too long ago, it made some sense to emphasize league games only. It's not like the Utes were going to beat anybody else. Playing for minor bowl status was the highest the Utes could aspire, anyway.

Now, different story. Never have two MWC teams played when both were in the top 10.

To use a hackneyed phrase (sorry, it's a hackneyed subject), the road to the BCS goes through Fort Worth and Salt Lake. TCU got the early jump by beginning the year ranked higher than Utah. Meanwhile, the Utes just kept grinding along until they rose to where they are.

Both teams are in the top 10 in several statistical categories. The Mountain West is the only conference with two teams ranked in the top 10 of both scoring offense and scoring defense.

Utah is averaging 45.25 points per game, third nationally, and TCU is scoring 40.78 points per game to rank ninth. TCU leads the nation by allowing opponents just 8.67 points per game, while the Utes are sixth, giving up an average of 14.13 points.

Utah ranks among the nation's top 25 teams in 13 categories, TCU 12.

The Utes are No. 1 in punt returns and fewest sacks allowed, and No. 4 in passing efficiency. TCU is No. 1 in pass defense and total defense, and No. 4 in passing efficiency defense. The Horned Frogs are also ninth in rushing defense.

In conference statistics, the teams are as omnipresent as 7-Eleven. Utah and TCU rank first or second in 13 of 17 categories.

That's a lot of statistical blather, but the fact is both teams are in fancy company.

Time to put on the tuxedos.

Used to be that beating North Carolina, Indiana or Washington State was a big deal for Utah. Now it isn't nearly as big as beating TCU.

Look, Dear, our little boy has grown up.

With Saturday's game featured on ESPN's "College GameDay," it has become an event of high national interest. That hasn't often — if ever — happened when two MWC teams played.

"I know this is on 'GameDay,' but we're going to treat this the same as if we're on the Mountain West channel and not worry about the distractions," said defensive tackle Sealver Siliga.

But later he added, "Just having 'GameDay' here and playing in a big game like this is going to be fun."

In other words, no big deal, except that's a big deal.

Meanwhile, that long-held cliche about conference games being all-important?

Now they can even say it with a straight face.

e-mail: rock@desnews.com

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