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No surprise; Utah Utes invited to face Alabama in Sugar Bowl

SHARE No surprise; Utah Utes invited to face Alabama in Sugar Bowl

When it comes to the Bowl Championship Series, Utah coach Kyle Whittingham says it's even sweeter the second time around.

Sweet as sugar, to be specific.

On Sunday, the seventh-ranked Utes (12-0) were formally invited to face No. 4 Alabama (12-1) in the 75th annual Sugar Bowl, Jan. 2 at the Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans.

"This is a great time for the Utah football program and a great time to be a Ute," Whittingham said after watching the BCS Selection Show

with his team, staff and supporters at Rice-Eccles Stadium. "It's exciting stuff."

It's the second time in five seasons that the Utes have garnered an at-large berth in the lucrative BCS. They defeated Pittsburgh 35-7 in the Fiesta Bowl in January 2005.

Utah is making history for the second time. The original BCS busters are now the first team from a non-automatic qualifying conference to breakthrough twice.

Both have come as rewards following seasons without a loss.

"We really couldn't ask for anything better than that. We're just really excited to get down there and play on the big stage," said junior linebacker Mike Wright. "I'm excited. It's a little surreal.

"This is something we worked so hard for all year and to finally be able to get this opportunity is great for us."

The Utes, who will resume on-field practices on Wednesday, are the only undefeated team invited to the BCS this year. They'll face an Alabama team that spent time ranked No. 1 in the nation and didn't lose a game until falling to former Utah coach Urban Meyer and the Florida Gators, 31-20 in the SEC championship game on Saturday.

Whittingham acknowledged he'll be getting in touch with Meyer. The coaches are good friends who speak on a weekly basis.

"Oh yeah, I'll be on the phone tonight to Urban," Whittingham said. "You bet we'll be in close contact. Absolutely."

Whittingham watched the SEC title game and was impressed with the great size and quickness Alabama has on both lines.

"Probably the most physical team in college football," he said.

And that's not all.

Whittingham also took note of the Crimson Tide's power-run attack on offense, talented receiver Julio Jones, a defense that may be the best in the nation and an icon in head coach Nick Saban.

"We have our hands full," he said.

The Utes know it.

"It's going to be a tough opponent," said linebacker Stevenson Sylvester. "So we are going to study hard and come out with our 'A' game."

Defensive end Paul Kruger considers it an "amazing opportunity" to play in a BCS game and have the type of season the team has had.

"You start the season at Michigan, at the Big House, and you end up playing Alabama in a bowl game," Whittingham said. "I'd say that's a pretty good season. So we're excited about that."

Utah players were all smiles after the official announcement was made. They were given a standing ovation by those in attendance.

"It'll be fun. We're excited about it, obviously. It's a good thing for our program, a good thing for our conference," said quarterback Brian Johnson. "It's healthy for us to get out and play a team that was No. 1 in the country for a very long time this season. It gives us a chance to get some credibility to our program if we go out there and make it happen."

The Utes are on a 7-0 bowl roll, including postseason wins over the past five seasons.

"I have no doubt that our coaches will get us prepared the right way," said kicker/punter Louie Sakoda. "It's just a matter of execution."

Alabama, he acknowledged, will be "an exciting challenge."

Bowl officials agree.

"For the 75th anniversary of the Sugar Bowl, we were hoping to have two great teams and with No. 4 Alabama and No. 6 Utah, we have one of the highest ranked match-ups in a non-championship game in the Allstate Sugar Bowl's history," Sugar Bowl chief executive officer Paul Hoolahan said. "Both of these programs have electrifying star players and outstanding coaches who have proven themselves on the field all season long. We cannot wait to welcome them to town and witness the match-up in this year's Allstate Sugar Bowl."

Utah athletics director Chris Hill is equally enthused.

"I love the fact that we're going to a Sugar Bowl, its 75th anniversary, and a chance to compete against a brand name like Alabama," he said. "I think that speaks well for our program. It's an exciting time."

Although Utah was passed over by the geographically friendly Fiesta Bowl, which will pit Texas and Ohio State, Hill said the folks in Arizona think very highly of the Utes.

"I think they made a decision that was in their best interest,"

Hill said. "We're just thrilled that the Sugar Bowl wanted to take us. They seem happy about it and we're happy about it."

Whittingham agreed. He's especially happy for Utah's veteran players.

"This is a special group of seniors and to have them be able to end their careers in a game with the magnitude the Sugar Bowl has — against an opponent like the Crimson Tide, one of the most storied programs in all of college football — I mean, what more could you ask for," Whittingham said.

EXTRA POINTS: Whittingham has ties to New Orleans. He lived there for three years (fourth, fifth and sixth grade) while his father, Fred, played for the NFL's Saints. Kyle returned in 1985 as a player for the USFL's Breakers ... This will be the first football meeting between Alabama and Utah ... The Utes have already sold 3,000 tickets for the game. The ticket office was open late on Sunday to accommodate additional requests ... More information on ticket packages and U. events in New Orleans can be found on www.utahutes.com.

On the air

Sugar Bowl

Utah (12-0) vs. Alabama (12-1)

Louisiana Superdome

January 2, 6 p.m.

TV: Fox 13; Radio: 700AM

E-mail: dirk@desnews.com