MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Now comes the encore.
Before rejoining the celebration in the Utah locker room after Wednesday's 17-0 Liberty Bowl victory over Southern Mississippi, Urban Meyer was asked about the future of the Utes.
"What's next? Recruiting like we've never recruited before. We've been exposed," Meyer said while pointing out the team went 4-0 in nationally televised games this season. "People will see us, and they know we're going to open up in front of a full house against Texas A&M on ESPN. It's a great time to be a Utah football player."
Though awaiting the final polls, the 25th-ranked Utes closed the 2003 campaign with great satisfaction. By topping the Golden Eagles they became just the second team in Utah history to reach 10 wins — a feat previously reached by only the 1994 team.
Defensive coordinator Kyle Whittingham, who has been on the staff for 10 years, said it was the most rewarding season in his tenure with the Utes.
It certainly will be one to remember as they claimed their first outright conference crown in 46 years. The Liberty Bowl triumph provided icing on the cake.
"We deserved to win a championship," said Meyer, who considers this year's senior class the best in Utah history.
Finding suitable replacements is paramount.
Meyer said the biggest slip in depth with the new regime has been on offense. The defense, he added, is in better shape thanks to the consistency associated with keeping Whittingham and his scheme in place.
Offensively, the Utes are busy recruiting to the needs of Meyer's spread system.
Top priorities are finding a running back to replace Liberty Bowl MVP Brandon Warfield and developing some depth on the offensive line. Seniors Thomas Herrion and Sean Souza leave some pretty big holes to fill. So, too, does the departure of tight ends Ben Moa and Matt Hansen.
Utah's offense struggled against Southern Mississippi's highly touted defense.
"I thought we'd pretty much get on a roll after the first touchdown," Warfield said of his 5-yard scoring run in the second quarter. "But it went the whole other way. We dealt with it the best we could and were fortunate."
Though not their best game in terms of execution — the Utes matched their season-high of 12 penalties at Texas A&M — they did find ways to get the job done.
The defense stepped forward with several big plays and enter next season with a string of 10 consecutive scoreless quarters. It successfully wrapped things up.
"I couldn't ask for anything more. It's a dream come true, definitely a dream come true," Utah senior safety Dave Revill said. "To win the Mountain West Conference championship outright, go 10 quarters straight without being scored upon, and this (winning the Liberty Bowl), you couldn't ask for anything more."
2003 LIBERTY BOWL: Memphis, Tenn.
SCORE: UTAH 17, Southern Mississippi 0
RECORDS: UTAH 10-2, Southern Mississippi 9-4
OFFENSE: Though Brandon Warfield netted Most Valuable Player honors, Utah didn't accomplish a lot offensively because of penalties, miscues and three turnovers. Quarterback Alex Smith completed just 8-of-19 passes for 124 yards. GRADE: D
DEFENSE: The Utes recorded five quarterback sacks and recovered four fumbles while extending their streak of scoreless quarters to 10 over three games. Southern Miss converted on third down just twice in 16 opportunities. GRADE: A-plus
SPECIAL TEAMS: Effective kick coverage, a 19-yard field goal by Bryan Borreson and most of Matt Kovacevich's punts failed to overshadow a bad snap that took three points off the board and a couple of mishandled punt returns. GRADE: C-minus
NEXT UP: Texas A&M at Utah, Sept. 2 (ESPN).