August Miller, Deseret News
Paul Kruger speaks to the media after the Utes arrived back home in Salt Lake City on Saturday.

NEW ORLEANS — The Sugar Bowl proved to be extremely sweet for the Utah Utes. They left the Superdome with more than a 31-17 victory over Alabama on Friday night.

"It puts us back on the map and shows that the Mountain West is a tough conference," said linebacker Kep Gaison.

Utah's second Bowl Championship Series appearance in five seasons was as successful as the first, a 35-7 win over Pittsburgh in the 2005 Fiesta Bowl.

In fact, given Alabama's stature and No. 4 ranking, this one likely exceeded it.

"It's like a big dream right now," said safety Robert Johnson, who had two interceptions against the Crimson Tide. "A couple of years ago, I was watching Florida play in a BCS game and was hoping that could be me. Now it looks like the dream came true for me."

The Utes are relishing in reality. At 13-0, they're the only unbeaten team in the nation this season — prompting debate about national championship consideration.

Just ask quarterback Brian Johnson. The Sugar Bowl's Most Outstanding Player, who completed 27-of-41 passes for 336 yards and three touchdowns, knows where he would put the Utes on his ballot if he had a vote.

"Number one. You know, what else do we have to prove? I mean, our strength of schedule going into this game was actually higher than Alabama's, and we beat Alabama by more than Florida did (31-20)," said Johnson, who noted that the Sugar Bowl was also more like a home game than a neutral site for the Crimson Tide.

"The resume's in itself. I think people get caught up in looking at the athletes and the glamour of a name that a program carries. But that's the reason why you play the game. The game is played on the field by players."

And winning the Sugar Bowl, he added, was something the blue-collar Utes wanted really badly and worked hard to get.

"I think we deserve it and I definitely think, without question, we are one of the best teams, if the not the best team, in the country," said Johnson.

Utah's list of accomplishments proves it. The Utes have won 14 consecutive games over the past two seasons and eight consecutive bowl games. Both are the longest active streaks in the nation.

"We have a tremendous amount of respect for Utah," said Alabama coach Nick Saban.

The Utes earned such praise with their performance in the Louisiana Superdome.

"They've got a great team. They weren't missing anything," said Crimson Tide defensive lineman Bobby Greenwood. "They were doing good in all aspects of the game."

Utah put on a dominating show on both sides of the ball. The Utes finished with more total offense yardage (349-208), first downs (22-15) and average yards per play (5.4-3.3).

It underscores how the Utes fared against the heavily favored Crimson Tide.

"Coming out with the victory is the greatest feeling in the world," said linebacker Mike Wright, who joined Stevenson Sylvester in making a team-high seven tackles. "We were positive coming into this game. We knew we could play with these guys and actually did. It's a dream come true."

Utah's defense — which was guided for the last time by Gary Andersen, the D-coordinator who is the new head coach at Utah State but stayed on to help the Utes prepare for the bowl game — rose to the occasion and made eight sacks. Sylvester recovered a fumble.

The Utes held Alabama star running back Glen Coffee to a season-low 36 yards rushing. The run-oriented Crimson Tide netted just 31 as a team.

Defensive end Paul Kruger said it came down to "a great scheme and guys coming up with big plays."

Saban acknowledged that the Utes made things difficult.

"Their defense was outstanding in the game," he said. "We could not run the football against them. They pressured the quarterback extremely well."

Utah's offense also had a strong showing behind Johnson's leadership.

Wide receiver Freddie Brown made 12 catches for 125 yards, while Bradon Godfrey, David Reed and Brent Casteel had touchdown receptions.

On special teams, Louie Sakoda did his thing with four PATs and a 28-yard field goal. He also had six punts for 271 yards.

"We did the things we had to do in this game to win," said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham, who noted that it was "a fitting end to a great football season for our guys."