We’re a little less fond of the little guy in college football. We cheered George Mason’s run in the NCAA basketball tournament two years ago, but no one is exactly protesting the Utah football team’s exclusion from the BCS national title game. Very few want to see the Utes play for a championship. We like our championship football teams big and powerful and tradition-rich.
But then the BCS started allowing more smaller schools the chance to play the powers in major bowl games — for all of its faults, that’s a plus — and we saw some surprises. Utah absolutely mauled Pittsburgh 35-7 in the 2005 Fiesta Bowl.
And, of course, Boise State toppled Oklahoma 43-42 — the greatest sporting event I’ve ever watched — in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl. Maybe the little guy deserved some respect.
And then this happened in the Sugar Bowl: Georgia 41, Hawaii 10. That one really set back the non-BCS schools.
The undefeated Warriors, who received a first-place vote in all three polls, got physically embarrassed. I kept waiting for Mills Lane to run on the field waving his arms, trying to stop the fight. Colt Brennan, sacked eight times in just more than three quarters, is probably still spooked by anyone wearing black. Hawaii, now a punchline despite that lone loss, finished with all the 9-4 teams in the final polls.
And so it’s only natural, one year later in the same bowl game, that Utah must face questions about their place in a BCS game. The Utes are undefeated. They’re playing an SEC team. And Alabama, like Georgia a year ago, flirted with a BCS title-game berth.
“I’d be less than honest to say we weren’t a bit concerned about the outcome of last year’s game,” Sugar Bowl CEO Paul Hoolahan admitted during a teleconference earlier this month, but he also said he still felt good about Utah.
Let me just tell you how much Utah quarterback Brian Johnson loves that comparison. Now in New Orleans for more pre-Sugar Bowl preparations, Johnson said he hears the question quite often: Why are you different than Hawaii?
“Our strength of schedule is higher than Hawaii’s was, that’s why,” Johnson said during a phone conversation Sunday, and then he starts speaking passionately. “We played some tough teams. We played the second-place team in the Pac-10 and beat them. We beat three ranked teams this season. Hawaii didn’t come close to that.
“It’s motivation for us. We’re going to go out there and play the game and show the rest of the country what we’re able to do. We’re excited about that.”
You know what? He’s totally right. Hawaii beat one ranked team, Boise State, last year. To be fair, the Warriors did look really good against Northern Colorado, Charleston Southern and West Central’s Beauty College and Art School.
Utah will play Alabama close on Friday, and not just because left tackle Andre Smith is suspended for the game (though Alabama’s performance without him against Tulane was disconcerting). The Utes are absolutely legit. They won at The Big House. They beat Oregon State, which almost made the Rose Bowl. They beat TCU. They destroyed BYU.
And you must also remember this: A jilted underdog — and Johnson said he knows Utah isn’t getting a ton of love in this game — is dangerous. But a jilted underdog filled with underdogs? That’s even scarier. Take Johnson, for instance.
Johnson played receiver and defensive back during his junior year of high school because Drew Tate, who eventually played at Iowa, was the quarterback. Until then-Utah coach Urban Meyer saw Johnson play his senior year, the Texas native was choosing between “mostly I-AA offers.” No one really wanted him.
Now, Johnson is a star and, just a warning to Alabama fans, you don’t want him with the ball in the final minutes of a close game. Johnson directed two scoring drives in the final 1:29 to beat Oregon State. He led an 80-yard drive with less than three minutes remaining to beat TCU.
“We enjoy being the underdog,” Johnson said. “It’s something we have to deal with throughout the season and our entire careers. I think everybody that comes here is built from the same mold. We’re not the biggest, strongest, fastest guys. But we work hard to develop, and we play for each other.”
And they aren’t playing to restore belief in the non-BCS schools. They are not Hawaii. And they aren’t playing to make up for Hawaii, either.
“We’re playing for the Utes. That’s what it’s about,” Johnson said. “We’ve gotten here, and we’ve earned it and deserved it.”