Normally, one of the big advantages to playing a WAC team in bowl competition is the intimidation factor. The I'm-Bigger-Than-You factor. The Who-Are-You-Guys? factor.

But this year, the Arizona Wildcats probably won't do especially well if they plan to intimidate the Utes in Tuesday night's Freedom Bowl. They picked the wrong opponent. On the wrong year. With the wrong coach.Intimidating the Utes, who come from a smaller, less-accomplished league, might work for Washington State and Southern Cal - the Utes' bowl opponents the last two Decembers. But to Arizona's consternation, this year the Wildcats are playing against Coach Mac.

In the first place, Utah coach Ron McBride isn't exactly the kind of guy you intimidate. His father was a steelworker. McBride made his name as an offensive line coach. This is a guy who could stare down Charles Bronson.

More important, McBride was assistant head coach and offensive line coach at Arizona for three years (1987-89). He knows about their preseason trips to Camp Cochise, near the Mexican border, to toughen themselves up. He knows they can get the flu on road trips and get sweaty palms before final exams and miss their girlfriends when they're out of town, just like everyone else. No big deal.

Consequently, the Utes are taking a less-than-reverent attitude about the Wildcats. You probably won't find any of them predicting a rout or trash-talking the opposing players. However, McBride doesn't believe there is any mystique to the Wildcats; doesn't need to to tell his players that the Wildcats run their offense one play at a time like everyone else.

"We don't have to tell our players anything. This team knows what it's capable of," says McBride, lapsing into coachspeak. "This is a mature team. We've beaten some good teams. We don't have to worry about any mystique."

Actually, McBride sees some compelling similarities between the teams. Arizona coach Dick Tomey, who hired McBride in 1987, thinks like McBride. They don't like short cuts. They start players in the program, work them like pack mules and bring them along year-by-year, taking all the steps along the way.

"Arizona is as good as anybody at developing players from their freshman year on up. They develop their skills on a day-to-day basis. They're very methodical and systematic," McBride continues.

Which, if he doesn't mind saying so himself, the Utes are too.

In several ways, Utah and Arizona could look in mirror and see one another. Arizona, dormant for several years after jumping from the WAC to the Pac-10, suddenly began rumbling a decade ago, when the Wildcats went to the Sun Bowl. Since then they have been building momentum steadily, attending seven bowl games counting this year's. After a stunning 29-0 win over Miami in the Fiesta Bowl last year, Arizona appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated as the No. 1 team in the country in the magazine's preseason editions last fall.

The momentum cooled quickly, though, when the WAC's Colorado State stunned the Wildcats 21-16. Two weeks later came the crucial 10-9 loss at Oregon, then a 45-28 loss at Southern Cal. They ended the regular season ranked 15th in the final AP polls.

Such considerations only stirs McBride to the Wildcats' defense. The last thing he wants to do is offend the opponent, much less his old employer. He points out that a one-point loss to Oregon and the surprise loss to Southern Cal kept the Wildcats out of the mother of all bowls, the Rose Bowl.

"They were one point out of going to the Rose Bowl," says McBride. "So basically they're, in my opinion, the best team in the conference. They could easily be 10-1 as 8-3."

Returning to play his old team hasn't gone unnoticed by former players. Several have called McBride. "They say, `Hey, you're playin' the 'Cats, man,"' McBride laughs.

McBride sees the symmetry in playing against his former team. Both programs steadily built themselves into contenders in their conferences, as well as the national rankings. It's like meeting a long-lost twin, separated at birth. "We both worked our ways from the slums to the middle class housing all the way to the high rent district,"says McBride.

And both know what it's like to suddenly have expectations to live up to. "Now if we don't beat the top teams in the league, people get ticked off," he adds.

Whatever similarities there are among the programs, therein lies the most common ground. Losing isn't tolerated as well as it once was. But at least they have company. When it comes to understanding the stresses of successful college football, it takes one to know one.