LOS ANGELES — The Utah-USC football game today is being aired on Versus. That's far from the biggest venue for sports coverage, but that's OK because neither team is ranked in the Top 25.
So remind me again, why is the game such a big screamin' deal to the Utes?
Other than the fact it might get them more national attention than any regular-season opener in their history, I mean.
When Utah and USC kick off Saturday at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, it will mark the first game in the Pac-12 era. For all we know, it will be the first salvo in the super conference era. But that's only a minor consideration. The biggest factor is that even without huge network coverage, the nation will be watching. Utah is the new girl in the neighborhood and she's kinda cute. But you have to wait and see. People have only seen her from a distance.
USC is home to 11 national championships (though stripped of one due to NCAA recruiting violations) and seven Heisman winners (yup, same dirty deal). The Trojans have more conference wins than any team in their league. But everyone knows that. What isn't known is whether the Utes can win at the Coliseum. Utah hasn't played there since 1948, a 27-0 loss.
The most recent game against USC was the 2001 Las Vegas Bowl, a 10-6 grinder that didn't set doves soaring or ships sailing, but it did help Utah build a streak of nine straight bowl wins.
Yet this game is easily bigger for the Utes than their bowl win over the Trojans. Back then, Utah was just an upwardly mobile mid-major, hoping to make a dent. Now it's a major program, hoping to prove its worth. In 2001, Utah's win — and even the 2008 win at Michigan — was considered a sort of quaint occurrence, a small team beating a USC team that didn't really want to be there. If Utah claims its first-ever Pac-12 game, on the road, people will be saying, "Look out for those guys. Seriously."
But honestly, is it really bigger than beating USC in a bowl game?
"Yeah, I would say so," said offensive tackle John Cullen. "I think because this is a first time for everything. It will never happen again — first Pac-12 game ever. There are bowl games every year. So this thing might get a little more pub than that."
Nobody's program in the West looms larger than USC's. Aside from its array of players, its famous alumni base is equally impressive: astronaut Neil Armstrong, filmmaker Ron Howard, actors Kelly Preston, Ally Sheedy, Tom Selleck and John Wayne, and general Norman Schwartzkopf, to name a few. You wonder if the school should switch the playing surface from grass to red carpet.
It isn't like the Utes haven't previously played big-conference teams on the road — Michigan, Oregon, Arizona, Oregon State, Texas A&M, North Carolina, UCLA and Louisville, for example. Plus there were the bowl games against Pitt and Alabama. But the significance of this game isn't lost on Ute fans who inhaled 5,000 tickets, with several thousand more expected to be purchased through USC or other outlets in California.
In past years, beating BCS opponents was a novelty. Now it's a harbinger. It's not Utah vs. Mega-Michigan or Utah against Enormo-Alabama. It's Utah vs. Southern Cal, even-steven. They're in the same country club, so to speak. Now it's a matter of showing whether they belong.
"I'm not sure," said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham, on whether this would be bigger than the 2001 win. "People talk about validating ourselves — do we belong, don't we? — but that's relative, too. Maybe in the past 10 years, five or six of our teams might have belonged in the Pac-12, maybe four or five might not have. It's a year-to-year deal. People can't say we don't belong because of just one game."
Whittingham did admit that "it's a significant amount of respect" on the line, but "one game doesn't a season make, one game doesn't determine who belongs where and who doesn't belong where. But it'll be a good barometer of where this team is right now."
One thing seems sure: The Utes are finally in a place where going incognito is entirely out of the question.