January 1, 2009

Sugar: Utah faces biggest challenge of season

MORE: Bowl schedule and coverage

NEW ORLEANS A quick glance at their surroundings the Louisiana Superdome, the French Quarter, the Mississippi River will remind the Utah Utes where they are.

But apparently they've forgotten their place.

After just a few days in the Crescent City, the Mountain West champion Utes seem to have forgotten their role as sacrificial lambs and even have had the audacity to suggest they could actually defeat SEC powerhouse Alabama in Friday's Sugar Bowl.


Alabama (12-1)
vs. Utah (12-0)

WHEN: 8 p.m. Jan. 2.
WHERE: Louisiana Superdome, New Orleans
TV: Fox (Kenny Albert will do play-by-play, with Daryl Johnston as the analyst).
THE LINE: Alabama by 9.5.
RECORDS VS. BOWL TEAMS: Alabama 5-1, Utah 5-0.
NCAA SCHEDULE STRENGTH: Alabama T-72nd, Utah T-62nd.
BCS RANKINGS: Alabama 4th, Utah 6th.
COACHES: Alabama Nick Saban (5-5 in bowls); Utah Kyle Whittingham (3-0 in bowls).
WHY YOU SHOULD WATCH: Teams from non-"Big Six'' conferences always are out to prove they can compete with established powers. Utah could make a huge statement for the little guys with an upset. And while this could be like last season's Sugar Bowl, when Georgia overwhelmed Hawaii, Boise State knocked off Oklahoma in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl, so there is a chance.
KEY STATS: Utah is 17th nationally in total defense, allowing 295.9 yards per game. Alabama is third nationally in total defense, allowing 256.9 yards per game.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Junior Mike Johnson figures to replace suspended All-America left tackle Andre Smith in Alabama's starting lineup. Johnson, who has started at guard this season, will be going against All-Mountain West Conference DE Paul Kruger.
"We're going into it like it's any other game," All-MWC defensive end Paul Kruger said. "They are a great team, and we've played great teams before. They're talented, they're big, they're strong and they have the big name, so that gives us kind of an underdog feeling.

"We feel like we're just as good a team. We feel like we deserve as much recognition, so you get a chip on your shoulder a little bit. You want to prove to these people you're not just these bums from Utah. We're actually a good team and excited for this."

True, the Utes are undefeated in 12 games, and just a few years ago prevailed against Pittsburgh in a BCS game, the 2005 Fiesta Bowl.

But the legions of SEC elitists would have a counterpoint: This time, the Utes aren't facing a soft Big East foe. This is Ala-freaking-bama, which went unbeaten through the SEC's treacherous regular season and features coach Nick Saban, All-America nose tackle Terrence Cody and big-play running back Glen Coffee. Surely, a crawfish in a bowl of etouffee has a better chance than the Utes of escaping unscathed.

But what if Kruger proves prophetic and the Utes pull off the upset?

Utah would be the only unbeaten college football team in the country and boasting a victory over the Crimson Tide, which spent several weeks ranked No. 1 in the country before suffering a down-to-the-wire loss to Florida in the SEC Championship Game.

In that case, shouldn't the Utes then be considered a legitimate contender for the national championship, especially if Florida topples Oklahoma in the BCS title game? Even Florida coach Urban Meyer, who led Utah to an unbeaten season in 2004, might be reluctant to dismiss the Utes' argument.

Of course, Utah won't be national champion. But a Sugar Bowl upset might force playoff opponents to rethink their stand on college football's most debated issue. At the very least, it would give the Mountain West Conference reason to argue its champion deserves an automatic bid into the BCS.

Clearly, the Utes aren't playing just for Utah. They will be carrying the torch for the MWC and all the other conferences that are looked down upon by the "Big Six."

"In my opinion we represent the non-BCS schools; that's an obvious situation," Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said. "It's a process the BCS vs. the non-BCS is an ongoing process. If we are able to come out with a win in this game, it's obviously a big step in the right direction for the non-BCS schools."

It's happened before. Again, Utah defeated Big East champ Pittsburgh in the 2005 Fiesta Bowl and WAC champion Boise State upset Big 12 champ Oklahoma in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl.

But Pitt was a less-than-powerful team that backed into the Fiesta Bowl in '04, and Oklahoma won the Big 12 in '06 only when Texas lost its final two games after quarterback Colt McCoy was injured.

Last season, unbeaten WAC champion Hawaii was dismantled by Georgia in the Sugar Bowl. Why shouldn't Utah, which struggled to defeat New Mexico and needed last-minute rallies to edge Oregon State and TCU, be expected to meet the same fate?

Well, Alabama has had its close calls, too. The Tide narrowly escaped in overtime against LSU, and struggled against Kentucky and Ole Miss. Those teams might not be as good as Utah.

In addition, All-America offensive tackle Andre Smith has been suspended, reportedly for having illegal contact with an agent. Alabama relies heavily on its running game, which figures to be weakened by Smith's absence. And there always is the possibility that the Tide won't be focused against Utah, which has a modest national profile.

Cody even acknowledged that Alabama had a lackluster practice earlier this week.

"I think it was kind of different because [Smith] wasn't out there," Cody said. "The tempo was different. [Coach Saban] said we were missing our intensity during practice and had a lot of mistakes. We knew we didn't have a good practice."

Of course, a poor showing in one practice doesn't necessarily mean there will be a lackluster showing in the game. Alabama is bigger, faster and stronger. But Utah isn't conceding anything.

"[A win] would put us on the map. We would get recognized and it would get us some media love," Utah linebacker Stevenson Sylvester said. "That's kind of what I'm hoping for.

"We've been in the spotlight a couple of times and it's great to be here again. We finished undefeated and Boise State came in [to the postseason] undefeated as well, so they gave us some love. But we expect to get a lot more respect after this game."

There they go forgetting their place again.

Who has the edge?

Alabama run offense vs. Utah run defense
Andre Smith's absence will hurt, but Alabama still has a powerful line that can create huge holes for running backs Glen Coffee and Mark Ingram. Coffee has exceeded 100 yards in five games and has rushed for 1,347 yards on the season. Ingram, a true freshman whose dad of the same name was an NFL wide receiver, has added 702 yards and a dozen TDs in a supporting role. Utah has been stingy against the run; the Utes allow an average of 104.8 rushing yards per game to rank 14th in the nation. If Utah is to pull the upset, this is the area in which it must step up. If Alabama runs effectively, the Utes have no shot.
Edge: Alabama.

Alabama pass offense vs. Utah pass defense
Tide QB John Parker Wilson can pass; he just doesn't do it often. Wilson's preferred target is freshman WR Julio Jones, who has 51 catches for 847 yards and four TDs. He's Alabama's only player with more than 30 catches. Wilson is secure behind a line that has allowed only 17 sacks, but could be compromised by Smith's absence. Kruger has 7.5 sacks to lead a Utah pass rush that has produced just 21. CB Sean Smith has five of the 17 interceptions the Utes have grabbed this season. They've allowed just 14 touchdown passes. When facing BYU's sixth-rated passing offense, the Utes allowed just 205 yards and grabbed five interceptions.
Edge: Utah.

Utah run offense vs. Alabama run defense
Utah's balanced offense produces almost 170 rushing yards per game. RB Matt Asiata has 678 yards and 11 touchdowns, while Darrell Mack has contributed 533 yards and three scores. But Utah only managed 45 rushing yards against TCU, which statistically leads the country in rushing defense. Alabama DTs Terrence Cody and Josh Chapman are almost immovable inside, and Rolando McClain and Dont'a Hightower are highly productive linebackers. Alabama ranks fourth in the nation in run defense and held Georgia's Knowshon Moreno, Arkansas' Michael Smith and LSU's Charles Scott to fewer than 100 rushing yards each.
Edge: Alabama.

Utah pass offense vs. Alabama pass defense
Utes QB Brian Johnson has had a spectacular season in which he's completed more than 68 percent of his passes for 2,636 yards and 24 touchdowns, with nine interceptions. He led the Utes to come-from-behind victories over TCU and Oregon State in the final minutes. Three receivers have more than 40 catches, led by Freddie Brown, who has 65 catches and seven TDs. Alabama has allowed 15 touchdown passes, but also has 15 interceptions, with four returned for touchdowns. FS Rashad Johnson has five interceptions.
Edge: Alabama.

Alabama special teams vs. Utah special teams
Alabama's Javier Arenas is one of the most dangerous punt returners in the country, averaging more than 14 yards per attempt with two touchdowns. He's not bad bringing back kickoffs, either. Leigh Tiffin has converted 19-of-26 field-goal attempts, with a long of 54 yards. On the other side, Utah All-America kicker Louie Sakoda has converted 21-of-23 field goals, with a long of 53 yards. He also averaged 41.7 yards on punts, with 21 killed inside the 20.
Edge: Alabama.

Alabama coaches vs. Utah coaches
Nick Saban has Alabama back among the nation's elite in just his second season. He already has a national championship while at LSU and appears to be nearing another. Kyle Whittingham, who replaced Urban Meyer, is in his fourth season at Utah. He has posted at least seven victories each season and is 36-14 overall.
Edge: Alabama.

X-factor: Does a Sugar Bowl matchup against Utah spark much passion for Alabama when the national championship game was so close? The suspension of Smith, Alabama's best player, doesn't set a good tone. If Alabama's players don't take Utah seriously, they could be in trouble.

Alabama will win if: The Crimson Tide are bigger and faster and more talented overall. If Alabama plays with intensity and doesn't take anything for granted, it should win. Putting pressure on Utah's Johnson will be key, too.

Utah will win if: Protecting Johnson will be the top priority because the Utes don't figure to have much success running the ball. Avoiding turnovers is crucial and forcing a few would help, too.

Expert picks
Olin Buchanan: Alabama 28, Utah 10
Tom Dienhart: Alabama 41, Utah 21
David Fox: Alabama 27, Utah 21
Mike Huguenin: Alabama 31, Utah 16
Steve Megargee: Alabama 27, Utah 17

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.

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