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The Whole Hundred Yards

The Whole Hundred Yards:
The Day Utah Football Changed the Game

By Paul Ketzle

Showered in confetti, sweat, and the sweetness of a dominating Sugar Bowl victory over Alabama, Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham told a national audience of college football fans the seemingly obvious: “There is only one undefeated team in the United States of America right now in Division I football, and it’s these guys right here.”

“What else do we have to prove?” Utah Quarterback Brian Johnson BS’08 added. “Without question, we’re one of the best, if not the best team in the country.”

A few days later, after all the bowls had been played, 16 voters in the Associated Press college football poll agreed. So did a large majority of online voters in the reader’s poll, which ranked Utah above the other title contenders, Florida, Texas, and USC.

The significance of Utah’s accomplishment did not go unnoticed by Utah’s peers, either, as when Boise State University President Bob Kustra thanked the Utes in a letter to The Salt Lake Tribune “for making an undeniable case for a non-BCS school being the national champion.”

The Utes’ “undeniable case” is precisely what some are trying to deny, however, and what both the Coaches and AP polls essentially did in ranking Utah No. 4 and No. 2, respectively, at the end of the season.

The University of Florida wears the unquestioned crown of the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) and ended the season No. 1 in the AP and Coaches polls. But the justifications for denying Utah at least a share of any “national” title are transparently weak, though necessary to maintain the status quo of a system whose financial rewards are concentrated among a powerful few.

This is a story about greed and disrespect, and an underdog who embarrassed not just its opponent, but critics and their self-justifying arguments, too, in one unforgettable season.

In short, the BCS gave Utah an inch—and the Utes took the whole 100 yards.


To understand how Utah got to this point, and why its victory attacks fundamental assumptions about the game, it helps to be aware of the strange convolutions of college football and how and why it evolved into the current system.

Division 1-A college football, now more obliquely labeled the Football Bowl Subdivision, has never had a playoff, nor has the NCAA itself ever crowned a champion. For decades (until 1998), college football’s “champion” was determined between teams that rarely, if ever, played each other, based entirely on the opinions of sports writers and head coaches, many of whom never saw (and still don’t always make an effort to see) most of the teams play. Additionally, neither poll began even considering bowl games in their calculations until after the 1968 (writers) and 1974 (coaches) seasons.

This informal system understandably invited controversy. In 1969, when two teams finished undefeated, then-President Richard Nixon infamously crowned Texas by proclamation after watching them play, snubbing in the process an equally untarnished Penn State. In fact, 11 times the two polls have chosen different champions.

Utah will forever have a legitimate claim to the National Title in 2008, just as much as any other top team and, realistically, more so.

Large conferences, and more specifically, large programs, flourished under this old system, operating in an environment of unlimited scholarships and comparatively lax oversight. But ironically, small conference schools and independents were, in some ways, better off under these rules. True, conference tie-ins made it impossible for these schools to play in some of the larger bowls, like the Rose. But uneven matches in bowls were extremely common, as these same conference tie-ins meant that it was possible for the highest-ranked teams to lose to much lower-ranked—even unranked—ones, leaving the door open for unaffiliated independents, like the University of Miami in 1983, and smaller schools, like BYU in 1984, to suddenly find themselves the last teams standing.

Various coalitions and alliances were subsequently formed between the major conferences and bowls to ensure that the No. 1- and No. 2-ranked teams could be matched up in bowl games in order to avoid split titles. But without all of the major conferences on board, the controversy continued.

Then, the Bowl Championship Series came along in 1998. While professing to give football fans what they desired—a “true” championship game between the top-ranked teams—something far more fundamental was at stake: money and power. The new BCS was created in cooperation between the so-called “major” conferences (such as the SEC and the PAC-10) and the largest bowls (Orange, Sugar, Rose, and Fiesta). Though this current system provides an avenue for a single non-BCS conference (or “mid-major”) school each year to take part in a major bowl (something that would have been impossible previously), it also virtually shuts out teams in smaller conferences from consideration for a national championship, unless they can prove on the field and in the minds of the voters that they are one of the top two teams in the country.

In the end, as it turns out, perception is all that matters.


Utah's defense
Utah's powerful defense stops Alabama cold.

Utah’s 2009 Sugar Bowl fate was sealed on the last day of the 2007 season, at the end of a game in which they didn’t even play.

That’s when BYU’s defensive lineman Eathyn Manumaleuna reached up in desperation and caught a piece of UCLA’s field goal attempt. In blocking that kick, BYU ended its year on a 10-game winning streak (including a last-minute win over Utah). This fortuitous event, along with most of its offense and key defensive players returning, assured BYU of high consideration the next year in preseason polls.

At the start of the 2008 season, BYU was, in fact, the only mid-major program ranked in the Associated Press top 25, at No. 16. The Coaches Poll included only one other (Fresno State, at No. 25). Utah, which ultimately finished the 2008 season ranked No. 2, began it with only a few votes of consideration and not nearly enough to merit a ranking. Texas Christian University, which finished the season No. 7, received not one single vote from the writers.

These preseason polls are significant determinants of a team’s ultimate ranking. As higher-ranked teams lose, they are punished relative to the perceived strength of their opponent and their own record. For example, a team ranked No. 1 that loses to an unranked team will be more severely punished than if it had lost to a team already ranked in the top 10. Big wins can help a team jump a spot in the rankings, and poor showings may drop it slightly, but in practice, a team will rarely leap over another that didn’t lose the week before.

Thus, for teams that aspire to play in the national championship, these “poll positions” are determinant. Despite Utah’s winning nine games in 2007, it was BYU (with only one more win) that found itself at the forefront of national opinion and praise. Writers and coaches obviously gave little thought to any other Mountain West (or other smaller-conference) teams, and consequently, BYU received most of the preseason attention and respect bestowed upon non-BCS schools.

Another problem with this system has become largely internalized in the computations: When you lose is often much more important than the team to which you lose. Losing early gives you time to move up. While Oklahoma lost convincingly to a Texas team early in the 2008 season, the Sooners ended up ahead later after the Longhorns’ last-second loss to another top-rated team, and played Florida for the BCS Championship.

The other key issues are “strength of schedule” and margin of victory. How thoroughly a team beats another can be used to measure the relative strength of a team, though the BCS took out margin of victory from its explicit calculations because teams were becoming more concerned with humiliating their opponents than winning.

Strength of schedule is fairly difficult to parse, but it is perhaps the most rational metric of the whole system. Typically, the measure of a team’s schedule strength is based upon not only whom it beats but also whom those teams beat. Strength of schedule is included in the BCS calculations, which involve not merely the opinions of coaches but also computer rankings. But the most important component in the end is the opinion of those who are tasked with watching the games (but who still, in practice, often don’t).

It’s not a perfect science. It’s not even a science, really. More like a superstition. And while few defend this convoluted calculus, outside of a playoff system, there are few other options. What matters, this system asserts, is not who is actually more talented than anyone else, but who wins. A late-season loss is viewed much like a playoff loss. The only solace is the knowledge that, at the very least, these ridiculous rules apply to everyone.

Well, everyone except the smaller conferences, as it turns out.


At the end of the 2008 season, Utah was the last team standing, the only unbeaten squad among all of the Football Bowl Subdivision. And it didn’t matter.

The 2008 Ute team isn’t the first college football team in history to finish undefeated and be denied by the voters. It isn’t even the only Utah team to find itself in this position. But that 2004 squad, which then-coach Urban Meyer describes as more talented than even this current team, was paired against an obviously inferior Pittsburgh team in the Fiesta Bowl. And just last year, the University of Hawai’i took its perfect season into the Sugar Bowl to face Georgia, while twice-beaten Louisiana State faced off against once-beaten Ohio State for the BCS Championship.

Kyle Whittingham and Brian Johnson
Coach Kyle Whittingham and QB Brian Johnson hoist the Sugar Bowl trophy.

But Hawai’i’s humiliating loss in New Orleans did as much to hurt the cause of the smaller conferences as Utah’s win a year later has done to strengthen it. Voters felt vindicated in their decision to exclude the Rainbows for failing to play a tougher schedule. A perfect record obviously wasn’t enough to merit consideration for the national championship. And it’s difficult to disagree with that conclusion.

In many ways, though, Utah’s victory over Alabama in the Sugar Bowl has created a far larger and more difficult controversy than previous undefeated teams and contested championships.

What made the 2008 Utes different had a little bit to do with the other championship contenders, each of whom had a flaw of some sort on their record. That left BCS defenders in the position of arguing either why Utah didn’t deserve consideration (“because its schedule was so much weaker”) or why Utah wouldn’t be able to fairly compete at the same level as these other quality teams.

But the competitiveness of the Mountain West Conference with the “big boy” schools and the Utes’ schedule strength flatly refuted the first argument. And Utah’s total dominance of Alabama obliterated the second.

Sports radio talk-show host Jim Rome made the way Utah won the centerpiece of his argument for why the BCS Championship didn’t matter: “What I didn’t expect was for Utah to kick ’Bama’s tail up and down the field all day long,” he said. “I didn’t expect a 60-minute mug job by a mid-major. There was nothing cheap about that. They didn’t use a trick play in the last minute to steal it. They punched them in the mouth all day long. The better team won.”

Utah is no flash in the pan, either, winning more games (16) against BCS schools than any other mid-major program over the past decade. Along with that stands Utah’s bowl win streak, currently the longest in the nation at eight, including victories in the Sugar and Fiesta. They beat a team in Alabama that spent five weeks at No.1 in the polls and that stood one quarter away from playing in the BCS Championship.

But to hear ESPN commentator Lee Corso tell it, Utah just didn’t compete against as many good teams as schools such as USC, which played in a conference that lost in head-to-head matchups with the Mountain West teams. Incidentally, USC’s only loss came to the same team Utah beat a week later.

ESPN radio talk show host Colin Cowherd justified Utah’s exclusion in the end by saying that these big schools “simply have better players.” Utah, he said, would be a big underdog to either Florida or Oklahoma.

Just as they were to Alabama, apparently.

In many respects, the justifications and guessing games only further highlight the comically awkward acrobatics that BCS defenders and mid-major detractors must go through in order to find some reason to explain why Utah shouldn’t be considered the National Champion.

Many sports commentators and columnists, like Rome and ESPN’s Rick Reilly, have chimed in to argue that the whole question is ridiculous. The BCS title game was a “championship” only in the sense that voters determined in advance that Utah wasn’t good enough and that the other two teams were “better.” That is the only argument remaining, since the Utes’ schedule and record both compare favorably with the other teams.

Much to their credit, 16 AP poll voters were able to recognize that this Ute squad, which few thought deserved any consideration at the start of the season, had earned the right to be called No. 1 by its end.

Utah’s win has now changed the way this game will be played, how champions will be evaluated. Utah will forever have a legitimate claim to the National Title in 2008, just as much as any other top team and, realistically, more so.

With President Barack Obama voicing interest in a college football playoff and Utah’s Attorney General Mark Shurtleff JD’85 making noises about suing the BCS as an illegal monopoly, pressure for further change is mounting. A dozen Congressional lawmakers from various states voted “NO” in protest on a resolution in support of Florida’s “national championship,” a symbolic gesture against a symbolic honor. Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch (who led Judiciary Committee hearings into the BCS in 2003) spoke out on the Senate floor, calling the system “un-American” and asking for a voluntary overhaul, suggesting that if the BCS didn’t fix itself, lawsuits and legislation will. The presidents of Mountain West Conference schools have begun to argue that the MWC should receive an automatic berth in the BCS. U of U President Michael Young himself indicated that he’d like a seat at the table to make the Utes’ case. Teams at other conferences might also reap the rewards of Utah’s efforts, like Boise State University, which has a strong team returning next year to play in a weak conference and could even squeeze into the BCS Championship Game.

These results are still improbable, though. The institutional factors are still fiercely opposed to change. In the meantime, the U of U will likely benefit from increased ticket sales, booster support, and overall fund-raising, as well as higher-profile recruiting. But perhaps most significant of all, the Utes’ incredible season has now shifted the entire debate about non-BCS schools.

And, as we’ve seen, perception is everything when determining college football’s champion.

—Paul Ketzle PhD’04 is a writing instructor in the University of Utah’s Honors College and its LEAP and University Writing programs, and is an occasional contributor to Continuum.

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For an analysis of how athletics success reflects on university academics, see Ketzle’s piece, “The Perfect Storm?” which addressed the issue following the 2005 championship football season. Among the article’s citations: One study found that prospective students associate high academic quality with a university’s athletics success.

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