EL PASO, Texas — Once upon a time, the Utes would ambush teams from the big conferences. They'd start on a low, indignant simmer and go from there.
For teams from automatic qualifying conferences, events like the Las Vegas Bowl, Poinsettia Bowl and Emerald Bowl were a bore; they didn't want to be there. But for Utah, it was an audition. For example, the 2001 Vegas Bowl, when the Utes shocked Southern Cal. A similar thing happened with Georgia Tech in the '05 Emerald Bowl. Utah had the Yellow Jackets on the mat before the equipment trucks arrived.
Even though the '05 Fiesta Bowl and the '09 Sugar Bowl were magnificent, a lot of people didn't consider the Utes a proper fit. Pitt and Alabama came in feeling superior, especially Alabama, which had expected to be in the national championship game. Both teams ended up getting wiped out.
So now that the Utes are in the Pac-12, you have to wonder: What do they have left to prove in Saturday's Sun Bowl?
More than they ever have.
They don't want to end their first BCS season looking like they sneaked into the theater via the exit.
Losing in winter is something coach Kyle Whittingham has rarely experienced. His only bowl loss as a head coach was last year's game in Las Vegas against Boise State. His only loss as an assistant was in the 1996 Copper Bowl against Wisconsin.
Whittingham points out that among teams that have played more than 10 bowl games, Utah has the highest winning percentage in the country (.750). "It's what we're used to and it certainly leaves a better taste in your mouth to win than to lose," he said.
Before last year, Utah had won nine straight bowl games. The Utes entered the game against Boise State with a backup quarterback, but no backup plan. They ended up losing 26-3.
"It wasn't fun," Whittingham said.
Last time Utah and Georgia Tech met was the 2005 Emerald Bowl. Utah was still trying to get respect. The Utes jumped to a 20-0 lead in the first 16 minutes and never trailed.
Saturday it's a rematch in the Sun Bowl, and the Utes need a win even more than last time they played. While previously Utah was one of the cute stories in college football, now it's a different deal. Back then, losing was no disgrace. Now it could be an embarrassment. (OK, last year's Las Vegas Bowl loss was an embarrassment, too, but under different circumstances.)
Finishing the season 7-6 would give Utah a barely passing grade in its first season in an automatic qualifying conference. Winning would reassure the Pac-12 that it made the right decision.
The Utes have all sorts of legitimate excuses for losing. There's a saying that goes like this: When you get in the end zone, act like you've been there. Unfortunately for the Utes, getting to the end zone has been a problem all season. They've been playing for months with a quarterback whose main assignment should have been fetching Gatorade for Jordan Wynn. Star running back John White, who kept the Utes from having a two-win season, is coming off an ankle injury in the season finale. Also injured in that game were offensive lineman Sam Brenner and defensive lineman Joe Kruger.
Though all are supposed to be fine against the Yellow Jackets, you never know.
Utah lost a half-dozen starters or key players to season-ending injuries this year.
At the same time, nobody cares about that except Ute fans.
For recruiting and legitimacy purposes, this year's bowl game is considerably more important than the 2005 game against Georgia Tech. No longer are they considered the feisty little scrappers. Coming in as runts and arriving as equals are two different matters.
Maybe the Utes should find a new strategy. After being the party crasher for so long, they now need to show they have no intention of toning down their act.
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