Utah's marketing team was right.
"You ain't seen nothin' yet" aptly described the Utes this season.
After going 10-2 and winning the Liberty Bowl in 2003, they put on quite an encore reaching new heights both collectively and individually.
A 12-0 record complete with an appearance in the Bowl Championship Series and a season-ending No. 4 ranking (best in team history) highlighted a campaign that included a Heisman Trophy campaign, a bevy of award recognition and record-setting crowds at Rice-Eccles Stadium.
And though the story ends with mass coaching departures, including Urban Meyer's hiring at Florida, and quarterback Alex Smith's early departure to the National Football League, the journey was one for the ages.
Athletics director Chris Hill isn't alone in calling it the greatest season in the history of Utah football.
No wonder Meyer tried to savor every minute of it. He apologized to reporters for being late to the postgame press conference following Utah's 35-7 victory over Pittsburgh in the Fiesta Bowl.
In his last official acts as head coach of the Utes, Meyer said goodbye to the team and turned the reins over to Kyle Whittingham. The media, as it turned out, had to wait.
Tough locker room, Meyer explained.
Utah's historic trip to the BCS was less challenging. The Utes won all 12 of their games by 14 points or more. They defeated Texas A&M, Air Force, North Carolina, UNLV, Colorado State and BYU at home. Road victories were secured at Arizona, Utah State, New Mexico, San Diego State and Wyoming.
The wins, coupled with finishing sixth in the BCS standings, landed the Utes in a Jan. 1 bowl game.
"No one has put more pressure on this football team than the players. We didn't get this far by listening to the media or listening to outside sources," said senior Morgan Scalley. "We got this far by caring about each other. This is a special team."
Utah's first unbeaten, untied team in 74 years took the nation by storm. ESPN began referring to the Utes as "America's team." The cable sports network even sent its popular "College GameDay" program to Salt Lake City for the BYU game.
Momentum gathered as the season progressed. For senior Sione Pouha, it hit home when the Utes arrived in Arizona for the bowl game.
"In midseason everyone talked about us as a BCS buster, but I didn't know what a BCS buster was. This is kind of new to all of us," said Pouha. "Walking off the plane with a bunch of yellow shirts and 500 people cheering you on . . . from the get-go you know what the difference is."
As the first team to crash the financially lucrative BCS (payout in excess of $14 million) from a conference without an automatic bid, the Utes made history. They wound up capitalizing on the situation by extending their winning streak to 16 games.
Smith led the way. He became Utah's first Heisman Trophy finalist (finishing fourth) while leading the highest scoring offense in school history.
"He's an extremely intelligent football player. He's a great decision maker. With the moves he makes at the line of scrimmage, he's a very sharp player. He obviously goes through extensive preparation in every single game plan. You really gain a huge amount of respect for him the more and more you watch him," observed Pitt defensive coordinator Paul Rhoads. "He's a great football player. He throws the ball with great velocity and accuracy. He hurts you with his feet. He can make you miss or run over you. He's a very physical player and that's demonstrated by the production in his touchdowns. He's a very gifted football player."
So much so that Smith is moving on to the NFL. Smith's decision to give up his senior season at Utah has left the Utes lean at quarterback. If the 2005 season began today, 17-year-old freshman Brian Johnson would be the starter. He saw limited action in 2004.
"It does leave us in a predicament because we now have just one scholarship quarterback in the program," said Whittingham. "We'll put all of our efforts into recruiting the two best quarterbacks we can find."
Quarterback isn't the only position that concerns the Utes in 2005. A senior class, dubbed the best in Utah history, has left plenty of big shoes that need to be filled. Scalley, the MWC's co-Defensive Player of the Year, and offensive guard Chris Kemoeatu are All-Americans whose eligibility has expired. Other notable departures include defensive tackle Sione Pouha, wide receivers Paris Warren and Travis LaTendresse, linebackers Tommy Hackenbruck and Corey Dodds, defensive end Jonathan Fanene, offensive tackle Makai Aalona, tailback Marty Johnson, cornerback Bo Nagahi, punter Matt Kovacevich and long snapper Brady Parkhurst. An LDS Church mission will keep freshman kicker David Carroll away from the program for two years.
The Utes, however, won't be completely depleted. Eight juniors, four sophomores and a freshman with starting experience are expected to return. They'll be coached by a revamped staff. Meyer took four assistants to Florida with him and two others will join former offensive coordinator Mike Sanford at UNLV.
Whittingham, who signed a six-year contract to replace Meyer has head coach, leads a staff that features new coordinators Gary Andersen (defense) and Andy Ludwig (offense).
Despite the makeover, the Utes are hoping to sport the success of 2004."It's a fairy tale season," said Whittingham. "I'm just excited to move forward and continue this program heading in the direction that it's at."
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