Some critics might discount the No. 23 Utes because they don't hail from a BCS conference, but don't count Cal coach Jeff Tedford among those who underestimate the Utes. In his assessment, Utah is good enough to play in the Pac-10, Tedford said during Tuesday's Poinsettia Bowl press conference.
"Utah I don't think is any different than any other Pac-10 team," he said. "Utah can play in the Pac-10 very easily and could be competitive. Playing tough competition all year long, even our non-conference games were pretty tough competition, so I think our team understands what we are up against here as far as Utah is concerned. They are a great football team and our kids have a lot of respect for them and it's going to be like another Pac-10 team for us." Utah coach Kyle Whittingham also attended the press conference and said Tedford's comments were a "nice compliment." The Utes are 2-2 against the Pac-10 in bowl games, 2-4 against Cal and are 18-11 against BCS teams since the BCS began in 1998. "We are competitive," Whittingham said. "Our track record speaks for itself, the win-loss record in those situations. Good football is good football whether it's in the Pac-10 or MWC or whatever the case might be." Despite their recent success and ranking, the Utes are three-point underdogs going into tonight's game against the Bears.
Whittingham acknowledged that often being the underdogs gave the Utes a "chip on their shoulder and an us against the world mentality." "Those guys who are making the point spreads get paid to get it correct most of the time, but I hope it's not correct this time," Whittingham said.
In the stands
A crowd of 30,000 to 33,000 is anticipated for the Poinsettia Bowl, with Cal and Utah both hoping to sell between 3,000 to 4,000 tickets, organizers said. To help bump up the ticket sales, Utah is working with former Ute Eric Weddle , who plays for the San Diego Chargers, to distribute tickets to local charities.
Weddle has spent some time hanging out with the Utes, but will miss the Poinsettia Bowl because the Chargers leave Wednesday for their game at Tennessee on Friday.
The Utes and Bears often cross paths in recruiting since California is a priority state for the Utes, who have 27 players with California ties on their roster. Among those is Utah defensive back Kamaron Yancy , who originally signed with Cal but couldn't attend because he was a class short of meeting the academic requirements. During the year he was taking the class, Yancy decided Utah was a better fit for him. Cal has two players from Utah on its roster, both of whom prepped at Cottonwood High. One is Keni Kaufusi , whose scholarship offer was rescinded by the Utes after he was involved in an altercation in Salt Lake City. He is now a freshman for the Bears. The other is freshman running back Isi Sofele , who has 12 carries for 82 yards and a touchdown this season. Whittingham said playing in San Diego would be helpful for the Utes' recruiting. "Any time you can get a recruiting footprint and play a game, the exposure you get on national TV is very positive for recruiting," he said.
Many of Utah's players have used their free time to wander the Gaslamp section of San Diego, where numerous hotspots and hip bars are located. Just to make sure the players don't get caught up in the nightlife, Whittingham instituted a midnight curfew earlier in the week and one for 10:30 p.m. Tuesday night to make sure players get plenty of rest. "Nothing good happens after midnight," he said.