NEW ORLEANS - Out of their element, out of their league — and still perfect.
Brian Johnson and seventh-ranked Utah came down from the mountains to SEC country and established themselves as the best of the BCS busters, finishing 13-0 with a convincing 31-17 win over No. 4 Alabama in the Sugar Bowl on Friday night.
Johnson threw for 336 yards and three touchdowns on his way to being selected the game’s most outstanding player, a fitting finish to the career of Utah’s winningest quarterback (26-7).
Utah became the first team from a non-BCS conference to win two BCS bowls. The Utes beat Pittsburgh in the 2005 Fiesta Bowl under coach Urban Meyer, going for his second BCS national title with Florida when his Gators play Oklahoma on Thursday in Miami.
Yet, after winning the Mountain West Conference, the Utes were left out of the BCS national championship game in favor of perennial powers Florida and Oklahoma, even though both have one loss.
That’s bound to bring more calls for changes to the BCS system, because Utah showed it could do more than just hang with the big boys, it could dominate one of them.
“I know where I’m voting us. I’m voting us No. 1. End of story,” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said afterward.
“I don’t know why they wouldn’t deserve that consideration,” he added later. “Somebody has to explain to me why they wouldn’t. There is only one undefeated team in the United States of America right now in Division I football, and it’s these guys right here.”
Utah’s only chance for a piece of the national title — albeit a remote possibility — is in The Associated Press poll. The AP, not part of the BCS, awards its own national champion.
The Utes are the only team in the AP Top 25 that remains unbeaten.
“What else do we have to prove?” Johnson said. “Without question, we’re one of best, if not the best team in the country.”
Johnson was 27-of-41 and was not intercepted, and the Utes took charge from the start by bolting to a stunning, 21-0 first-quarter lead. When Alabama pulled to 21-17 early in the second half, the Utes refused to wilt.
Utah’s defense was equally impressive, intercepting John Parker Wilson twice and sacking him eight times, with the seventh sack forcing a fumble that sent crimson-clad Alabama fans streaming for the exits with just more than five minutes remaining.
After surging to No. 1 in the rankings with a 12-0 regular season, Alabama closed with two consecutive losses, the first against Florida in the Southeastern Conference championship game.
Following that first loss, Saban noted that his club still was the only team to have an undefeated regular season in a “real BCS conference.”
The comment wasn’t aimed specifically at the Utes, but it clearly motivated them.
“From my perspective, I was angry, not just because of what Saban said but everything that was out there,” Johnson said. “I just felt like we were being completely disrespected.”
Johnson and the rest of the Utes played with an angry edge, much to Saban’s chagrin.
“I apologize if anybody was offended by that. We had a tremendous amount of respect for Utah,” Saban said. “I certainly misstated that. ... So if that’s what gave them all their intensity, then I guess I’m responsible for the way they played and I’m responsible for the way we played.”
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Nick Saban makes an apology and Utah's coach Whittingham and QB Brian Johnson think Utah is the best team in the country.
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More on Sugar Bowl
No. 7 Utah 31, No. 4 Alabama 17