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August Miller, Deseret Morning News
U. quarterback Alex Smith celebrates the 52-21 win over Brigham Young University with fans at Rice-Eccles Stadium on Saturday night.

The fans at the University of Utah's Rice-Eccles Stadium flooded the field, some wearing sombreros and tossing tortillas, in reference to their Fiesta Bowl hopes.

Others ripped down the goal posts. Soon to follow, in the interview room, was the much-anticipated announcement: The Liberty Bowl had released the 11-0 Utes to play in a Bowl Championship Series game.

After fighting his way through a crush of fans outside the locker room, Ute coach Urban Meyer noted the half-crazed crowd.

"I can't get over how beautiful it is," he said.

Exactly how big is Utah earning a spot in a BCS bowl, anyway?

Let's put it this way: "Lord of the Rings" big.

Ghostly riders, ghastly orcs and BYU Cougars notwithstanding, it appears the Utes have won the battle over Middle — er, Mid-Major Earth.

Barring a shocking turn of events, they'll be playing in a Bowl Championship Series game somewhere.

"If I had my choice, I'd like to play the highest-ranked opponent," said Meyer. "I think we're one of the top three or four teams in the country."

Now that the Utes' regular season is over, it is time for them to both catch and hold their breath. They can catch their breath after 11 games of grueling football. Although it seems a certainty they have an automatic BCS berth, they'll be holding their breath to see where they are Monday in the all-important BCS standings.

The Utes might end up in the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans, sampling the jambalaya at K-Paul's Kitchen. They could still land a spot in the venerable Rose Bowl, watching the New Year's parade from a fine vantage. Or they could play in the Fiesta Bowl on New Year's Day against Boston College or perhaps even (Oh, what a beautiful morrrrrrning!) Oklahoma.

One thing is almost certain: For the first time, a mid-major team is headed for a BCS Bowl. What does that mean?

Nothing, unless you consider $14.4 million a big deal. And unless you think millions of potential recruits watching on TV don't count.

Somewhere Rocky Balboa is smiling.

The Utes will be playing not just for themselves or the Mountain West Conference. They'll be playing for the Tulanes, TCUs, Louisvilles, Bowling Greens and Boise States, too.

Chalk one up for the little people.

Every good fantasy story needs a Frodo Baggins.

Two major hurdles to qualifying for a BCS bowl were wiped out with Saturday's 52-21 win over BYU. That left the Utes with a still-perfect record. Afterward, another obstacle was removed when Liberty Bowl director Steve Ehrhart and MWC commissioner Craig Thompson announced an agreement had been struck. Though they didn't say it was a financial settlement, go ahead and assume that's the case. Normally, the MWC champion is committed to the Liberty Bowl.

Nothing a cash settlement can't fix.

Meanwhile, the odds of anyone catching the Utes — rated No. 6 in last week's BCS standings — are practically nil. The next-highest teams, Michigan and Florida State, lost on Saturday. Nos. 9 and 10 are Boise State and Louisville, a couple of non-BCS teams themselves. To earn an automatic BCS berth, the Utes need to finish in the top six of the BCS standings.

Actual bowl match-ups won't be decided until Dec. 5, but right now the Utes aren't worrying about whom they might play.

Asked at one point what opponent he'd prefer, Meyer said, "I don't really care right now."

If someone gives you the keys to a sports car, are you going to ask if it's been washed?

That isn't to say Utah have a realistic chance at a national title. There are still three undefeated teams (Auburn, Oklahoma and Southern California) ahead of Utah in the BCS standings. But Meyer said he can see the day in a few years — when it could happen.

"I think it could," he said.

Still, as evening stretched into night, no Utes were complaining. The battle for a big-time bowl seemed a lock. It was a time of celebration in Mid-Major Earth.

"This is a great step forward for the league," said Thompson.

Or as Aragorn said to the hobbits after they saved the world: "My friends. You bow to no one."


E-mail: rock@desnews.com