How Utah Exposed the Vaunted SEC

Brian NelsonCorrespondent IFebruary 17, 2009

With another National Crown and a terrific Bowl season to cap the 2008-09 season, it would seemingly go down as yet another year of SEC dominance.

But before you dub the SEC as the biggest, fastest and strongest in the land, one glaring problem still lingers.

How did no name, non-BCS Utah, with its 2-star recruits, under-sized defensive line and weak schedule expose the mighty Crimson Tide and the SEC as an over-hyped, overrated and over confident prima donna?

The answer will surprise you.

November 6th
Set the stage back to the first week of November. Utah had just beaten 11th-ranked TCU in an ugly, defense oriented (SEC-like) struggle.

The Utes had emerged as one of the few remaining unbeatens in a tough conference, with two particularly impressive wins over top-15 TCU and the current first place team in the Pac-10 (Oregon State).

Yet the nation was still unimpressed. Pundits and BCS fans were dismissive and presumptuous of Utah's success.

Dozens suggested that Utah wouldn't belong on the same field as BCS powerhouse teams like USC, Penn State, Alabama and Texas Tech.

ESPN’s Mark Schlabach, commenting on the Arkansas victory over then-unbeaten Tulsa, went as far as to say that a bottom tier SEC West team would probably beat Utah. Insightful journalism or just wishful thinking?

So how did CFB nation justify these phantom claims to superiority when on-the-field performance proved otherwise?

Many would argue that larger programs simply had stronger recruiting classes, better depth, richer traditions and more financial resources. All reasonable factors.

Yet none of them seem to have a direct impact on the field of play. Recruiting is a good indicator but far from an exact science. We needn't look further than this year's Notre Dame, Michigan, and Tennessee to gather that.

Why so little emphasis placed on game plan and execution?

Wyoming 13, Tennessee  7
Then something really strange happened. MWC bottom dweller Wyoming defeated Tennessee in Knoxville. Wasn't this a huge blow to SEC and the BCS brass? 

Many blew it off as a lame-duck Tennessee team that had surrendered the season. But didn't Tennessee go on to beat Kentucky and Vandy in the ensuing weeks? Both of whom went on to win big bowl games. Could it be implied that Wyoming and the bottom tier of the MWC were on par with these teams?

How else could Wyoming win as many games against the SEC (1-0) in one try as they did against the entire MWC (1-7)? SEC Hubris led to denial.

Allstate Sugar Bowl
The 2009 Sugar Bowl was pronounced all but over long before opening kickoff. Talking heads, Tide fans and SEC supporters around the country far too eagerly predicted a Georgia-Hawaii-like outcome.

Alabama represented SEC football at its finest and clearly would be too big, too strong and too fast. “Utah wouldn’t know what hit ‘em.”

I challenge any reader to Google "Sugar Bowl predictions." It’s laughable. Very few gave Utah a chance. I’d say over 80% predicted a blowout win for Alabama. Even after Andre Smith’s suspension.

But these two teams were pretty even.

Like Alabama, Utah had won several close games but always seemed to come up big in the clutch. Utah’s O-line was actually bigger than the much heralded Alabama O-line and compensated their lack of size on the defensive front with exceptional speed.

How was this supposed to be a blowout? What led to these irrational assumptions? Well, it comes down to assumed superiority. 

As a result I found myself being reminded over and over again by SEC supporters that this was SEC football and Utah would be overwhelmed by Alabama’s physicality.

This hype and overconfidence is exactly why Utah came in and sucker-punched a team that went undefeated in SEC Conference play and nearly defeated National Champion Florida.

If Alabama ‘s simple defend-well, run-the-ball-down-their-throat and set up the play-action game plan worked well in the vaunted SEC, Utah wouldn’t have a chance.

What Alabama learned quickly was that Utah, despite overwhelming conventional thinking, was better and faster than any of the SEC teams Alabama had disposed of. This game plan simply did not work against a superior team.

Thus, Alabama’s overestimation of their SEC counterparts is ultimately what led to their ill-preparation against Utah. This point is well-illustrated by Saban's comment after the UF loss that his was the only undefeated team in the regular season from a "real' BCS Conference.

Utah on the other hand was more battle tested. Much more than people thought.  Through its close victories over Oregon State and TCU, Utah discovered something very critical to the Sugar Bowl matchup. No defense, no matter how good, could stop Utah’s no huddle, precision passing game in the 5 wide receiver set. Especially if they didn't know it was coming.

For now, the vaunted SEC has to live with being 0-2 against the MWC and making up the excuses that inherently follow.

Ironically, some of these were the same excuses used to justify superiority earlier.

Alabama wanted to be in the National Title game, not the Sugar Bowl
I find it hard to believe the Tide wasn’t up for its first Sugar Bowl since 1993 and first BCS Bowl in nearly a decade?. If the SEC brand is such tough, hard-nosed football, why weren’t they ready to play when the moment they suited up? I think Utah’s “anytime, anywhere” mentality is much more "SEC" like.

Alabama wasn’t up for the game. They had nothing to gain.
But Georgia showed up against Hawaii? All that did was put UGA as the preseason No. 1. A very heralded position. Face it, Alabama had no backup game plan. They thought they would roll through Utah based on what they were able to do in the SEC.

Andre Smith was suspended and Mike Johnson was hurt
I thought the BCS superiority was all about depth. I even had several fans and pundits inform me the SEC backups would likely be All-Conference in a non-BCS. So much for that. But the Tide was still beat on both sides of the ball. Utah was also starting two of their backups at LB and on the Defensive Line.

The reality is that 5-star recruits bring talent but they also bring their own agenda. Sometimes there can be consequences.

The SEC hype can be its own worst enemy. It's clearly the best Conference in football. No one can argue that.

But there is no excuse for overlooking and underestimating an opponent as poorly as Nick Saban did. Assuming superiority because of geography or conference affiliation is nonsense.

The Crimson Tide had a great team. Nick Saban is a terrific coach, but their own hubris and false sense of superiority set themselves up for a surprising and bitter disappointment on Jan. 2.

Unfortunately, their enormous fan base and the many talking heads around the country were equally as naive.

In reality, it never should have been a disappointment at all. The facts were there. Utah was just as good, probably better than Alabama all year long.


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