Attention, Gators: Disrespect the Utah football team at your own peril | David Whitley

David Whitley
Gator Sports
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Urban Meyer was going to clean house when Utah hired him in 2003. He planned to bring a bunch of assistants with him from Bowling Green without even kicking the old staff’s tires.

Then he went to dinner with Kyle Whittingham.

“Kyle is as good of a football coach as I’ve ever been around,” Meyer told the Deseret News. “I could tell that right away at dinner.”

Somewhere between the appetizer and the salad, Meyer decided to keep the pink slip in his pocket. He retained Whittingham as defensive coordinator.

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Two years later, Whittingham was named head coach when Meyer went to a school near you. The rest, as they say, is history Utah fans relish. Their football program has blossomed in its post-Urban era.

Florida’s? Not so much.

Utes have excelled in post-Urban Meyer era

Which brings us to Saturday night at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. Whittingham’s team will be the first opponent for new coach Billy Napier. He’s Florida’s fourth coach since Meyer decided he wanted to spend more time with — pick one — his family, Ohio State, Fox’s pregame crew, female patrons at his bar, Shad Khan’s checkbook.

Whatever the case, things haven’t been the same since the Urbanator left town. So much so that Utah is 2½-point favorite to ruin Napier’s debut, and the point spread probably should be more.

Should be, but that’s not the world Utah lives in.

“We’re a program that is still working on our brand,” Whittingham said, “and trying to become more of a national presence.”

It’s still tough to convince people like CBS analyst Kevin Carter. He said the Utes are “overhyped” and will lose to Florida. The former Gator undoubtedly spoke for a lot of alums.

They are persuaded by The Swamp. The humidity. Utah’s had no relevant UF game tapes to dissect.

Maybe Anthony Richardson lives up to the hype. Maybe Napier’s cultural makeover kicks in right away.

All are legitimate straws to cling to. But another straw is not so legit — Utah’s “overhyped.”

I’ve heard about 10 times the hype about USC and Miami and Texas A&M, none of whom have Utah’s credentials. The Utes are a defending Power Five conference champ. They return 17 starters from that team, including stud quarterback Cam Rising.

After Utah started 0-2, he came on last year and led the Utes on a 9-1 streak. It ended with an epic 48-45 loss to Ohio State in the Rose Bowl.

But that was just a bowl game, and the Buckeyes weren’t taking it seriously. And the Power Five conference Utah conquered was the Pac-12, which for years has been Oregon and the 11 Dwarfs.

That’s the reflexive downgrading the Utes live with. People hear “Alabama” and football comes to mind. People hear “Utah” and think skiing, a big salty lake, Mormons and the Osmonds.

Utah even overlooked in the Pac-12

Somewhere down the list is Whittingham’s football factory. It gets lip-service respect, but let’s be honest. Most fans in the South think the Utes would be lucky to finish third in the SEC West.

A lot probably think Utah is still in the Mountain West or Big Sky or Rocky Mountain Conference. It’s been in the Pac-12 for a dozen years. Most of the attention in that time has gone to Oregon by virtue of its flashiness or USC by virtue of it being USC.

Utah just plays tough, fundamentally sound, slobber-knocking football. It’s not overly telegenic, but it’s on brand. Whittingham has played the Lack of Respect card well, with 144 wins and 15 bowl berths.

The Utes have won 11 of those, including the 2009 Sugar Bowl. They played an Alabama team that was ranked No. 1 before losing the SEC title game to Meyer’s Gators.

Utah was unbeaten when it faced the Crimson Tide. Though Nick Saban was kind enough to quip that Alabama was the only team from a “real BCS conference” to undefeated in the regular season.

The Utes proceeded to take a 21-0 lead on Alabama en route to a 31-17 win. But like last season’s encounter with Ohio State, fans figured the Crimson Tide was mailing it in and could have dusted the Utes if they’d tried.

You won’t hear Napier tossing any “real conference” shade at Utah, mainly because the Utes have the kind of program he wants the Gators to become.

Florida’s players are also saying all right, respectful things about the Utes. They might even believe them.

As for those who believe Utah is overhyped, take it from Meyer.

Whittingham’s as good a coach as the Gators will face. And the surest way to lose to Utah is by believing you shouldn’t.

— David Whitley is The Gainesville Sun's sports columnist. Contact him at dwhitley@gannett.com. Follow him on Twitter @DavidEWhitley.

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