EL PASO, Texas —
Aside from the fact Utah beat Georgia Tech the last time they met, and notwithstanding the reassurance the Utes are now in a BCS conference, there is one overriding reason they should expect to win Saturday's Sun Bowl.
They own this town.
From the banks of the Rio Grande, to the Guadalupe Mountains, it's Utah property, lock, stock and honky tonk.
Technically, it's been a long time since the Utes were beating UTEP at the site of Saturday's Sun Bowl game. Last time they played on the border was 1996, a 34-27 win over the Miners. They also played there in 1995, 1993, 1991 and 1989 — all wins. It has been 23 years since they lost a game in the place that calls itself Sun City.
You might say El Paso became a safe zone. Back in the days of the old WAC, it was just another familiar and usually successful road trip. After eight schools broke off from the WAC to form the Mountain West, the Utes never returned. But that doesn't mean they don't still own the deed to the property. Utah is 12-4 in games at the Sun Bowl, 11-4 against UTEP and 1-0 against New Mexico, thanks to a surprisingly easy win in the 1939 Sun Bowl game.
Utah won its first-ever regular-season game in El Paso, too, a 41-0 trouncing of Texas Western (now UTEP) in 1964.
In that sense, the Utes shouldn't worry about anything except how to get some good chili verde. They've certainly played in tougher bowl conditions. For instance, Memphis and San Francisco, where it can be dank and humid in winter. Even last year's Las Vegas Bowl was nearly ruined by a relentless, cold rain. Then it was ruined anyway for the Utes, thanks to a relentless, cold Boise State.
Temperatures on Saturday are expected to be in the mid-60s. This shouldn't be a surprise to Utah coach Kyle Whittingham, who visited El Paso as a BYU player and later as a Cougar and Ute assistant. But it has been awhile.
"Gosh, I think the last time I was there, I think we scored 82 points — something in the 80s — a Doug Scovil (ex-BYU assistant) special," he said of his playing days at BYU. "I just remember the Sun Bowl had a hard turf, just like they had here at Utah. It was like playing on concrete. I'm sure they've upgraded it several times."
Whittingham's memory is fairly good, at least in one sense. As a BYU player he was on a team that beat the Miners 83-7. But that game was actually in Provo. A year later (1981) the Cougars beat UTEP 65-8 in El Paso.
Whittingham was an assistant coach at BYU in 1985, when the Cougars lost 23-16 to the Miners, and a Ute assistant in 1995-96 when Utah won back-to-back games in El Paso.
Familiar as El Paso is (or was), that doesn't mean the city has lost its remote feel. There are 2 million people in the El Paso-Juarez area, yet it still feels like a country outpost. Maybe it's the dust storms, or the parched mountains that skirt the city.
"I remember seeing Juarez on the freeway," said defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake, who played against UTEP when he was at BYU. "(El Paso) is nowhere near the other part of Texas. You can't even consider it Texas, really."
You can't really consider it Mexico, either.
Yet the Sun Bowl has maintained some of the glitter that made it the home of such bowl match-ups as Georgia-Nebraska (1969), Georgia-Texas Tech (1964), Texas A&M-Florida (1976) and Oklahoma-Texas Tech (1993). The bowl's 44-year connection with CBS makes it the longest running TV bowl agreement in the country.
The Sun Bowl is the nation's second-oldest bowl game, tied with the Orange and Sugar bowls. It became the first of a long string of games named after sponsors when it convinced John Hancock insurance to sponsor the bowl in 1986. It has since been known as the Norwest Bank Sun Bowl, the Wells Fargo Sun Bowl, the Vitalis Sun Bowl, the Brut Sun Bowl and now the Hyundai Sun Bowl.
The Sun Chips Sun Bowl can't be far off.
Whatever the name, the Utes should feel comfortable about their surroundings. They couldn't be blamed if they were to tell Georgia Tech "Howdy, welcome to Texas, but keep on moving."
This has practically been Utah's territory since Texas actually was a territory.
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