SAN FRANCISCO When it comes to mixing business with pleasure at the Emerald Bowl, Utah is working off a priority system.
Work comes first.
"We're here and we're settled," said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. "It was a good work day."
Before a bowl-sponsored bay cruise and a trip to Alcatraz, the Utes crossed the Bay Bridge for a practices at Laney College in Oakland. They'll do so again this morning as Thursday's game against 24th-ranked Georgia Tech approaches.
"It was a fairly clean practice," Whittingham said. "It's good to be here."
The Utes have spent the past couple of weeks practicing at the Spence Eccles Field House and Rice-Eccles Stadium. They haven't played a game since defeating BYU 41-34 in overtime on Nov. 19.
"It's been extremely tough on us both physically and mentally just because we've been working so hard," said junior cornerback Eric Weddle. "It's been tough, kind of like summer workouts, just because we want to be prepared for this game and not come out lackadaisical like some teams have done thus far in the bowl season."
With four straight bowl victories dating back to the 1999 Las Vegas Bowl, the Utes take postseason games seriously.
"We're excited to be a part of this bowl game in San Francisco and see all the sights," Weddle continued. "But we're here for a reason and that's to win a bowl game."
Utah eagerly returned to the field after taking a couple of days off for Christmas. The Utes spent approximately two hours polishing things up Monday. Whittingham said the game plan was completely installed before the team headed to California.
"A couple of days off was nice, but it's nice to get back to practice and back into the core of things," said quarterback Brett Ratliff. "I can't wait for the game to get here."
Ratliff, who has been hobbled by a minor ankle sprain, leads Utah's offense into its stiffest challenge of the season. Georgia Tech's defense ranks amongst the nation's elite. As usual, much of the Utes' preparation has centered around conditioning.
"We've been putting in a lot of hard worka lot of extra conditioning that we didn't approve of," mused running back Quinton Ganther. "But it's things you've got to do to be the best. Get yourself in tip-top shape, in game shape."
Whittingham has repeatedly said Georgia Tech is very athletic, very fast and has a lot weapons. The Atlantic Coast Conference squad (7-4) is all that stands in the way of Utah (6-5) salvaging a disappointing season with a winning record.
Whittingham, however, isn't placing extra significance on the game even if it is his first as Utah's head coach. The Utes, he insists, will give it their best shot.
History, however, doesn't paint a pretty picture. At 22-11, Georgia Tech has the nation's best winning percentage in bowl games (for teams with 20 or more appearances). To make matters worse, the Mountain West Conference is 0-3 in the Emerald Bowl.
"It's not a make or break game. Absolutely not. I don't think any bowl game can have that label put on it," Whittingham said. "If your program is at a level where you can get to a bowl game that's a big positive."Of course you want to win the game. There's no doubt about that," he added. "But to say it's a pivotal or a make-or-break situation, absolutely not."