This is how big it is for the University of Utah to play in the Sugar Bowl: Its opponent has a quarterback so important he has two first names; a nose tackle who is, well, a landmark; a legacy so strong it brings to mind a certain houndstooth hat.

After four years of feeling not quite vindicated, the Utes have a second chance. This time it's not a watered-down Big East champ they're playing in a BCS bowl. It's Jan. 2 against the Alabama Crimson Tide, a team that has been to 56 bowl games.

"We're 12-0 for a reason," said receiver Brent Casteel, "and we're gonna prove it."

Amazing how time flies when you're practically perfect. Seems only yesterday the Utes were playing the most famous opponent in their history. Wait. That was yesterday, or close to it. They opened the season with a win at Michigan's "Big House," launching their oversized plan to take over the planet — or at least the ESPN highlights. Turned out Michigan stunk like, well, Lake Michigan.

Still, it was a start.

"We started the season against Michigan in the Big House and we're finishing in the Sugar Bowl against Alabama," said Ute coach Kyle Whittingham. "That's a pretty good season."

Now they are playing a fearsome opponent, and one that isn't overrated. Not necessarily bigger in name than Michigan, but a lot better. And far better than the Pitt team Utah demolished in the 2005 Fiesta Bowl.

Alabama was ranked No. 1 for five weeks and undefeated in 2008 until Saturday's loss to Florida.

So the Utes have their shot to make a strong impression.

"I've said all along I think we're an elite team in the country," said quarterback Brian Johnson, "and I think we'll get a chance to prove ourselves."

The team got the word of its destination along with the rest of the country Sunday night. Players, coaches, media and fans gathered at Rice-Eccles Stadium to watch the TV proceedings on a big screen. Red accent lighting offset a large Utah logo on two walls. Tables were decorated in bowl themes, with oranges, corn chips and sugar bowls as centerpieces.

In anticipation, someone thoughtfully placed one of the sugar bowls at the center spot of the rostrum. So maybe it wasn't a total surprise. When the pairing was announced, fans cheered loudly nonetheless. Whittingham received a standing ovation, as did players Brian Johnson and Louie Sakoda.

"This a great time for the Utah football program; great time to be a Ute," said Whittingham.

Unlike the 2004-05 Pitt Panthers, Alabama has universal recognition. Quarterback John Parker Wilson isn't the best in America, but he's among the most famous. You know you're huge when rival fans steal your cell number and post it on the Internet. The Tide lineup also includes nose tackle Terrence "Mount" Cody, a player who weighed over 400 pounds in junior college. Now he's down to a lithe 365.

The Tide running game is led by 1,300-yard rusher Glen Coffee.

Then there's the history. Alabama is where "Super Joe" Namath and Ken "The Snake" Stabler launched their careers; where coach Bear Bryant made wearing a houndstooth hat almost look cool.

"We're not playing history," said Johnson. "They said the same thing when we played at Michigan. We're playing living guys on the field. That's all we can worry about. We can't worry about the history of Alabama, Bear Bryant, all that, because at the end of the day, you just gotta worry about beating the guy in front of you."

If there's one thing the Utes have shown recently, it's that they aren't all that concerned about names, places or pedigrees. Or magic hats. They beat three ranked teams (TCU, BYU and Oregon State) and one legend (Michigan) this year alone, and are 6-3 under Whittingham against BCS opponents.

Now they say they have one more point to make.

"To go against that team," said Casteel, "is going to prove a lot."


E-mail: rock@desnews.com