Tom Dienhart Rivals.com College Football Senior Writer
Utah coach Kyle Whittingham calls it "respecting the process." It's nothing fancy, nothing complex. But it's why Utah is the premier non-"Big Six" program in America.
"That has been our mantra for a few years," he says. "And we are kind of hanging on to that. The 'process' is the preparation process, what you do in the weight room, classroom, practice field, 365 days a year.
"If you respect that and commit to that, then you'll be successful."
He and the Utes have been successful to the point where many schools want to be like Utah. Phone calls flooded Whittingham's office in the offseason after a magical 13-0 season that was punctuated by a 31-17 upset of Alabama in the Sugar Bowl and a final No. 2 ranking. Can we come and study your defense? How does your offense operate? What are your motivational tricks?
"We couldn't have everyone come out," Whittingham says. "But we did what we could and also visited other schools to help out."
Now, the spotlight swings back to Whittingham: How is he going to feed the Utah beast?
That's right: The Utah program has become a beast. The Utes have been to two BCS bowls in the past five seasons. Alabama can't say that. Neither can college football heavies such as Auburn, Florida State, Miami, Nebraska, Oregon and Tennessee, among others.
Whittingham repeats the question again and laughs.
BCS or bust
Looking for a BCS-buster in 2009? Look at Boise State, which has the talent – and, most important, the schedule – to run the table. This is familiar territory for the Broncos. Chris Petersen led the Broncos to a 13-0 record in 2006, capped by a scintillating overtime victory over Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl. Others with a good chance to break through to a BCS bowl this season:
Is there a better non-"Big Six" quarterback than Case Keenum ? His production is why the Cougars are favored by many to win Conference USA. But as with most C-USA schools, defense will tell the tale for the Cougars.
With a strong defense, the Utes just need to solve a few issues on offense – most notably, quarterback and wide receiver – to make another run at a big-boy bowl.
"How are we going to feed the beast?" he asks. "I don't know, but it's a nice problem to have.
"We have to move on. [Our players] understand the Sugar Bowl season is something that never can be taken away from them. But in 2009, nobody cares. It's a new season. We need to understand that we have a bull's-eye on our chest, we are defending Mountain West champs and Sugar Bowl champs, and people are gunning for us. Nobody cares what we did last year."
Now comes the difficult part: staying on top. The Mountain West, inarguably, is the nation's best non-"Big Six" conference.
"[The win over Alabama] put us back on the map and shows that the Mountain West is a tough conference," Utah linebacker Kepa Gaison says.
But in 2009, TCU – not Utah – figures to be the preseason favorite.
"It is harder to stay there than to get on top," says Whittingham, 49, who played linebacker at BYU, Utah's archrival. "First, everyone is gunning for you. You are going to get everyone's best shot. Fighting complacency, not letting yourself get satisfied and getting too comfortable – it is a mentally tougher challenge to try to stay at that high level than it is to get there."
The personnel losses from last season are significant. Gone are four NFL draft picks – defensive end Paul Kruger, cornerbacks Brice McCain and Sean Smith and wide receiver Freddie Brown. Also gone are star quarterback Brian Johnson and kicker Louie Sakoda, who left Utah as all-time greats, and standout guard Robert Conley.
"No doubt, we have some good players to replace," Whittingham says. "But we like where we are sitting right now."
Why not? Whittingham took the baton from Urban Meyer after a 2004 season that saw the Utes go 12-0 and become the first BCS-buster when they thumped Pittsburgh in the Fiesta Bowl. Meyer has gone on to make Florida the premier program in the nation by winning two of the past three BCS titles.
Meanwhile, Whittingham has carved out his little slice of heaven in Salt Lake City by forging a 37-14 record and going to four bowls. Five days before the Sugar Bowl, Whittingham signed a five-year contract extension that will pay him $1.2 million. He also got his assistants a 25 percent raise.
No losses, no titles
Teams that finished with perfect records but no national title since 1970:
Whittingham's staff has a new look. Offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig and defensive coordinator Gary Andersen left; Ludwig departed to become offensive coordinator at Kansas State before quickly leaving for the same job at California, while Andersen became coach at Utah State.
"Defensively, we will be very similar," Whittingham says. "We have been running the same defense for 15 years. Offensively, we are going to open it up a bit more. With Brian [Johnson] the last couple of years, we were reluctant to get him banged up. So we will be a little more of what the spread offense will really be about, with the quarterback running game being a bigger part of the game."
But who will be the quarterback? When spring drills concluded, Corbin Louks was penciled is as the starter, but the job remains open. Louks played 19 games over the past two seasons as a change-of-pace option, but he's more of a runner than a passer. Junior college transfer Terrance Cain and true freshman Jordan Wynn took part in spring drills, and there were some who whispered that Wynn reminded them of Alex Smith, the quarterback of the 2004 Utes who went on to be the No. 1 pick in the 2005 NFL draft.
"The quarterback race will be a little tight," Whittingham says. "Corbin began spring with an edge, but as the spring progressed, those guys closed the gap. We have to get it sorted out and we have to get it down to two quickly because there aren't enough reps to get them all the work they need."
Would Whittingham consider playing two quarterbacks?
"I am not a fan of that," he says. "I think if you have two, you don't have one. Last year, Corbin was our change-up guy. You need to identify who your starter is. You never say never, so if you get so close to the fall and there's no separation, we will look at some options. But if I had my druthers, I would have just one quarterback."
The thoughts are coming fast on this day for Whittingham. But things are starting to slow down for him. The season is a day closer, which in a way will be a relief for one of the hottest coaches in the nation.
"It has been hectic and non-stop since the Sugar Bowl," Whittingham says. "But we aren't complaining.