The biggest college football debate raging today is whether Boise State or even TCU can become the first non-AQ team to play for a BCS national championship.
So much has changed in the span of six short years.
Back in 2004, there was no such thing as a non-AQ team even making it into a BCS game.
That all changed with Utah, the original BCS buster. The Utes ran through that season undefeated and earned a berth in the Fiesta Bowl against Pittsburgh. They were a revelation to the nation under then-coach Urban Meyer and super quarterback Alex Smith. Now the two schools will play for the first time since that game Thursday night in Salt Lake City, it is worth reflecting on what Utah did and how it helped change the system.
That season, Utah beat three teams from AQ conferences: Texas A&M, Arizona and North Carolina. Smith finished fourth in Heisman voting. It earned the right to play in the Fiesta Bowl with its top 6 finish in the BCS standings. While the Utes most certainly deserved their spot in the game, there were still questions about a team from the Mountain West Conference. How good were they? How good was the Mountain West? Consider Utah made it into the game before the BCS expanded to five games and changed its rules to guarantee a spot to a non-AQ team that finished in the Top 12 of the standings.
Though Pittsburgh was a team essentially nobody wanted -- the Big East champion that finished No. 21 in the BCS standings -- Utah still had to prove itself against a team from an automatic qualifying conference. It did that, easily winning 35-7 and finishing No. 4 while helping pave the way for non-AQ teams to follow. Since then, every season but 2005 has seen at least one non-AQ team make it into the BCS. Last year, history was made when both Boise State and TCU made it.
Utah has gone on to great success, having beaten Alabama in the 2009 Sugar Bowl for another undefeated season and a No. 2 ranking in the final AP poll. Both times it went undefeated, Utah failed to get a spot in the national championship game, and that contributed to Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch holding Congressional hearings into the legitimacy of the BCS.
Hatch has vowed to fight on for the non-AQs even now that Utah will join the Pac-10. Those two BCS wins made Utah an attractive candidate to join that conference, which has an automatic BCS berth. The Mountain West had been a candidate for automatic qualification status during the current four-year bowl cycle, but that is looking dimmer now with BYU set to leave.
Still, that first BCS game helped legitimize non-AQ schools everywhere. For the first time this season, two non-AQ teams are ranked in the preseason top 10. Boise State has its highest presason ranking, No. 3 in the AP poll and No. 5 in the coaches poll. TCU is No. 6 in the AP poll and No. 7 in the coaches poll.
Many fans still have questions about just how good these non-AQ schools really are, despite their BCS game success. But there is no question Utah paved the way for everyone else.
"I'm not sure we look at ourselves as any kind of pioneers," said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham, who served as co-coach in that game following Meyer's decision to leave for Florida. "We’re just proud to have been a part of a couple magical type of seasons that don’t come around very often.
"We’ll go down in history as the original BCS buster."