From BCS Buster to Pac-12 Champions: The Rise of Utah Football


Justin Prather

University of Utah football head coach Kyle Whittingham as the clock winds down in a loss to the University of Oregon Ducks in the 2019 Pac-12 Championship football game at Levi’s Stadium, Dec. 6. (Justin Prather | The Daily Utah Chronicle)

By Max Valva, Sports Writer


The year is 2003, and longtime University of Utah Athletics Director, Chris Hill, is about to make an under-the-radar coaching hire that will change the Utah football program forever. The Utes were coming off a season where they finished with a 5-6 record, 3-4  in the Mountain West Conference. It was longtime head coach Ron McBride’s second losing record in three years and it became clear that the program needed a change. After firing McBride in late 2002, Hill took a chance on young coach Urban Meyer.

Meyer, who had helped turn around a struggling Bowling Green program in a short time, looked to do the same with the Utah program aspiring to become a more competitive team. In his first season with the Utes, Meyer helped lead the program to a 10-win season, a faster turnaround than anyone expected. This was primarily due to the development of quarterback Alex Smith, who quickly became a star. With a Liberty Bowl win in his first season, it was clear that Meyer was helping the team move in the right direction.

The 2004 campaign was a memorable one for the Utes. Meyer, looking to improve the team even more, led Utah to their fourth undefeated season in school history, where they ranked fourth in the country. Smith put up a season to remember in which he finished fourth in the Heisman Trophy race and would declare for the NFL Draft after just two seasons as a Utah starter. The Utes earned the title of “BCS Buster,” as they got the opportunity to play in the Fiesta Bowl where they took down Pitt.

But after this great success of a season, Meyer took a head coaching job at Florida, which left the program at a crossroads.

Following Meyer’s departure, most experts predicted Utah to take a major step back, but newly appointed head coach Kyle Whittingham had different things in mind. Over the span of the next three seasons, Coach Whittingham led the Utes to three straight bowl victories despite having to work with a brand new coaching staff.

2008 was a big one for Utah Football.  After starting the season with a close win over the blue-blood University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, the Utes did not take their foot off the gas and ended their regular season with a commanding win over BYU. The Utes finished off the season undefeated with a major 31-17 win over Alabama, proving that they could match up with anyone.

The summer of 2010 was a big one for Utah Football, as they announced that they would be joining the Pac-10 conference along with Colorado. The Utes’ first season in the now Pac-12 was impressive for a team transitioning to a new conference.

After two straight losing seasons in 2012 and 2013, Whittingham was able to recruit a squad that became a yearly competitor in the Pac-12.

The 2018 Utah team took the next step as they became the first Utah team to win the Pac-12 South which earned them the right to play in the Pac-12 Championship Game, but fell victim to the Washington Huskies.

In 2019 the Utes once again qualified for the Pac-12 Championship and lost, this time to Oregon. These losses proved to be only a minor setback, as just two years later, the 2021 Utah Utes squad won their first Pac-12 Championship and got to compete in the Rose Bowl.

The rise of the Utah Football program is a story for the ages. It shows resilience and patience and that the right coaching hires can go a long way in turning a program into a national contender. 

Going into the 2022 season, the Utes are favorites to win the Pac-12 and are predicted to compete once again at a national level. Once a slept-on team by the national media, the Utes are now a highly talked about team nationwide, something that wouldn’t be the case if it wasn’t for the skill of Coach Whittingham and Coach Meyer before him. With several exciting seasons to come in the near future, there is much to look forward to for Ute Nation. 

If anything has been made clear over the past couple of decades, it is that Utah Football will do its very best to make the season as exciting as possible for Utes fans nationwide.


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