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Sunday, December 7, 2008
Alabama's loss to Florida lands it in the Sugar Bowl against unbeaten Utah

Associated Press

Shortly after Alabama lost its first game of the season -- and any chance to play for a national championship -- Nick Saban muttered something that might add a little spice to the next contest.

The Crimson Tide coach said his team was the only one "that plays in a real BCS conference that went 12-0."

Hmm, what do you think about that, Utah?

"We don't let it bother us," coach Kyle Whittingham insisted Sunday evening. "Our mantra this year is only control what we can control. Go out and play our best football week in and week out. Our fate is in the hands of voters and computers. We don't worry about that other stuff."

That philosophy worked out just fine for the Utes, who'll get a chance to show their 12-0 record is nothing to be scoffed at when they face Alabama in the Jan. 2 Sugar Bowl at New Orleans.

No. 4 Oklahoma (12-1) was atop the rankings until a 31-20 loss to Florida in the Southeastern Conference championship game Saturday. The defeat couldn't have come at a worse time, giving Alabama no chance to bounce back like other one-loss schools such as Florida and Oklahoma, which will meet in the BCS championship game at Miami.

Still, the Tide was one of the country's most compelling teams, returning to national prominence in Saban's second season. Before he arrived in Tuscaloosa, Alabama had gone through a rough decade: four coaches, four losing seasons, stifling NCAA sanctions and just one appearance in a major bowl.

"Our players are certainly disappointed," Saban said. "But this is an opportunity. If you're going to be a great team, when you lose, you want to come back and play your best the next time you play."

Four years ago, No. 6 Utah became the first non-BCS school to reach a major bowl since the format was created in 1998. The Urban Meyer-coached Utes defeated Pittsburgh in the Fiesta Bowl to complete their first perfect season since 1930.

Now, they've got a shot at another in a year that began with an upset win at Michigan and will finish at the Superdome.

Twenty-four hours after the loss in Atlanta, Saban threw out plenty of compliments about Utah, even if they do play in the Mountain West Conference -- not one of those "real" BCS leagues.

"It's not easy to win 12 games in a season and go undefeated," he said. "Their team has done an outstanding job and it's a fantastic opportunity for us. It's going to be a competitive game."

A competitive game is certainly at the top of the Sugar Bowl's agenda. Under the convoluted formula used to fill out the four major bowls after Nos. 1 and 2 are matched in the championship game, the Big Easy somehow wound up with a BCS Buster for the second year in a row.

Last season it was Hawaii, which charmed New Orleans with its island friendliness but got blown out on the field, losing 41-10 to SEC powerhouse Georgia.

"I'd be less than honest if I didn't say we were concerned about the outcome of last year's game," said Paul Hoolahan, the game's executive director. "Hawaii was fabulous in everything they brought to the city: the enthusiasm of their fan base, the general quality of the people who came in to participate. They were a great bunch to have.

"But in any situation, there's so many elements you're trying to make happen at the highest level. When you get into a situation where it becomes a little lopsided, it's just a difficult thing. You want to keep all your constituencies happy. So that was something of a concern."

In all fairness, Utah appears to be a more accomplished program than Hawaii. The Utes already have a BCS bowl victory on their resume and this year's out-of-conference schedule included not only the season-opening win at the Big House (before anybody knew just how bad Michigan were going to be) but a home victory over Oregon State, the only team to beat mighty USC.

"When you look at schools like Utah and Boise State, they've played up," Hoolahan said. "They've played competitively against top-name schools. To go 12-0 with the schedule they have, with the way they play, the way they get after it, I think it's a safe bet with those teams. Particularly Utah. We're comfortable they will compete at a very high level."

Alabama was 15 minutes away from playing for its first national championship since 1992, leading the Gators 20-17 heading to the fourth quarter of the SEC title game. But Tim Tebow guided Florida to a pair of touchdowns and a spot in the biggest championship game of all.

The Tide's consolation was a 13th appearance in the Sugar Bowl as the SEC's representative. Alabama will be making its first trip to the Big Easy since the New Year's Day game in 1993, when a 34-13 rout of Miami Hurricanes wrapped up the school's sixth national title -- and only one in the post-Bear Bryant era.

Meyer is now coaching at Florida, but his successor Whittingham left in place the spread offense that worked so well against Alabama in the SEC championship game.

"It's a good offense," Saban said. "It's difficult to defend -- very, very challenging."

The Utes clinched the Mountain West title two weeks ago and finished sixth in the BCS standings to secure a spot in one of the major bowls. The only other unbeaten team in the NCAA's top division was Boise State (12-0), but they were ninth and settled for a minor bowl.

So it's left to Utah to carry the banner for all non-BCS schools.

"Hopefully we can keep this going and keep it up and make this a yearly thing," quarterback Brian Johnson said. "I've been saying all along I felt we were an elite team. We'll get a chance to prove ourselves."