Bring it on

One was a BCS contender for eight weeks a season ago. The other is predicted by many to crash the BCS party for the second time in three years.

One hails from a historically elite conference crammed with championship banners and national relevance. The other hangs around atop a league that has only risen to prominence in recent years.

But when the U football team toes the Rose Bowl turf this Saturday to take on the UCLA Bruins, the Utes will be looking to not only make a major week-one statement, but also to solidify a shifting balance-of-power in the process.

“We’re excited to get under way,” U head coach Kyle Whittingham said. “The Rose Bowl is a great venue to play in. It is a good opportunity for our players-playing in the Rose Bowl and playing an upper-echelon Pac-10 team like UCLA.”

A victory over the Bruins, a 10-2 finisher last season, would go a long way to proving that 2005’s up-and-down campaign was merely a blip on the proverbial radar for a program that has ingrained itself in the consciousness of the college-football universe. The fact that UCLA has, in seven tries against the Utes, come out victorious every time is, for all intents and purposes, a moot point. The schools haven’t played each other in more than 30 years, and the makeup of each program has changed dramatically.

Without any pertinent history or conference standings on the line, all that’s left for Saturday afternoon is another chance for the Utes to prove themselves against a more recognizable opponent.

“I think it provides motivation for the players, I don’t think there’s any doubt about that,” Whittingham said.

Whittingham, now entering his second year at the helm, has settled into the post and has a strong host of veterans leading the charge-a stark contrast to last year’s youthful and injury-depleted group. He and his teammates have more than just a non-conference road foe ahead of them-Saturday’s opener could set the tone for the rest of the season. The U coaching staff has seen this team in every possible practice situation throughout spring and fall camps, but gameday situations are a different story. Playing time is still up for grabs. Questions are still in need of answering.

Perhaps, most importantly, people around the country will finally find out whether or not this team can beat a major team on the road.

And while UCLA’s Ben Olsen will be starting his first collegiate game Saturday, Utah has the benefit of a veteran signal-caller under center. Senior Brett Ratliff led the team to victories over BYU and Georgia Tech and was a two-year starter at Butte College before transferring to the U. Ratliff, for one, is looking forward to seeing what he and the offense can do this year.

“Knowing that I’m the starter now, and to have that much under my belt, it’s a big ease,” he said. “I’m way confident in what the team can do and what I can do.”

Ratliff will be joined by plenty of offensive weapons at his disposal-though, no doubt, Whittingham and his coaching staff will still have plenty of evaluating to do, both in and out of his starting lineup. After months’ worth of open competition at the running back position, Mike Liti has emerged as the starter for the UCLA game, though he will split carries with senior Darryl Poston.

Poston has been battling a hamstring injury of late, which has limited his practice schedule. Liti, a fourth-year junior who split backup duty with Darrell Mack last season, is “playing the best football of his Utah career,” according to coach Whittingham.

“By far, this is the best summer I’ve had,” Liti said. “This is pretty much the first camp I’ve come all the way through without any injuries or any family problems or anything like that, so I’m doing well.”

Of course, the biggest challenge Ratliff, Liti and Co. might face is the enigma that is the UCLA defense. While the Bruins return seven starters from last year’s No. 1 unit, the team has a new defensive coordinator in DeWayne Walker, a former secondary coach for the Washington Redskins.

“UCLA is a great team; they’re in the Pac-10. They were 10-2 last year, so you can expect a great defense, so we just have to do what we do,” sophomore wideout Marquis Wilson said.

Ute players and coaches have repeatedly remarked on the Bruins’ athleticism-and that applies directly to the UCLA secondary, which hopes to match up against a deep Ute receiving corps to take away the Utes’ bread and butter.

“Obviously we want to attack. Every offense wants to attack,” Wilson said. “Every offense wants to have a great performance, and that’s what were gonna try and do, we are going try and bring it to them and give them everything we got.”

Kickoff is set for 4 p.m. Pacific Time and will be televised on Fox Sports Net.