Utah running back Matt Asiata (4) is congratulated by teammates Colt Sampson, center, and Chris Joppru (80) after scoring a touchdown against Alabama in the first half of the Sugar Bowl on Friday in New Orleans.AP PHOTO
NEW ORLEANS — During its glory days of old, there was no place Alabama would rather end a season than in the Sugar Bowl.
The Crimson Tide won its last national championship in the 1993 edition, its eighth victory in 12 previous appearances in New Orleans during the new year.
The Bowl Championship Series era changed that. Alabama’s berth in the Sugar Bowl this season was more akin to a relegation after a loss to Florida in the Southeastern Conference title game, which prevented the Tide (12-1) from playing for the BCS championship in Miami.
The same cannot be said for Utah (12-0), which needed to run the table to get the school’s first taste of the Sugar Bowl and its first matchup with Alabama on Friday night.
“It’s a big step for our program in the history of the school,” Utah receiver Bradon Godfrey. “It’s definitely the first or second biggest thing our school’s ever seen.”
The only comparable accomplishment for the Utes was their undefeated 2003 season, which ended with a victory over Pittsburgh in the Fiesta Bowl. That victory gives Utah a measure of bragging rights. Alabama has only one BCS bowl appearance, the 2000 Orange Bowl, which it lost to Michigan in overtime.
Utah, which cannot win an automatic BCS berth because it plays in the Mountain West Conference, would become the best of the so-called BCS busters by beating ’Bama.
“They’re a quality opponent and nothing to take lightly, but we are, too,” Godfrey said. “We’ve made a statement this year and I think that we definitely deserve to be here.”
Of course, Utah will have to prove it on the field. The Utes enter the contest as more than one-touchdown underdogs against the runner-ups of the SEC, a conference whose champion has won the past two BCS title games. Florida’s matchup with Oklahoma next week in Miami gives the SEC a chance to win a third straight national title.
The Sugar Bowl, meanwhile, has hosted only one non-BCS team under the current bowl system. It was Hawaii, which lost 41-10 to Georgia last year.
Even Alabama coach Nick Saban — shortly after his club’s loss in the SEC title game — seemed to unwittingly sell short Utah’s undefeated season when he noted the Tide was the only team to have an unblemished regular-season mark in a “real BCS conference.”
The message seemed to be that not all 12-0 regular-season records are created equal, and while Utah coach Kyle Whittingham would rather not make a big deal of it, he couldn’t deny his players were aware of what Saban said.
“They’re not oblivious to things,” Whittingham said Thursday. “They hear things. They read things.”
Utah is proud of its more recent but still impressive winning tradition. The Utes have won their last seven bowl games. Their 13-game winning streak, dating to a Poinsettia Bowl win over Navy last year, is currently the nation’s longest. Whittingham pointed out his team has won 20 of its last 21 games, evidence his players are not prone to metal lapses.
“If my assumption is correct, they’ll come with that same mindset (Friday) night and play well,” Whittingham said. “Whether that’s going to be good enough to win, we’ll find out.”
Still, Whittingham has been anything but arrogant. Even after Alabama suspended All-American left tackle Andre Smith, the Utah coach continued to characterize the Tide’s offensive line as a big, physical force that deserves credit for the Tide’s rushing average of 196.5 yards.
“It’s a very impressive group,” Whittingham said. “That’s a big challenge for our front seven, is to match up with their run game.”
Saban said the big concern for his defense is containing Utah quarterback Brian Johnson, a poised and accurate passer who scrambles well. Johnson completed 68.3 percent of his passes for 2,636 yards and 24 touchdowns this season.
“Their quarterback to me is an outstanding player, great accuracy, athletic, can get away from the rush in the pocket and make plays,” Saban said.
As for Utah’s undefeated season, Saban isn’t downplaying that now.
“Their production on offense is one of the top teams in the country. They’re one of the top defensive teams in the country. They have one of the top turnover margins of any team in the country,” Saban said. “They’re very well coached. They play with a lot of discipline. ... I think they would be very, very competitive in any league.”