NEW ORLEANS — Torch lamps and candles were beginning to flicker to life as night fell on Jackson Square. It was the same time of day, in the same place I had met a witch named Brigitte six years earlier.

In my first encounter with the dark arts, I sought her to inquire about the futures of John Stockton and Karl Malone. This time I was in the French Quarter to learn the Utes' chances in the Sugar Bowl.

Who needs ESPN prognosticators when you've got access to the world beyond?

But like a lot of New Orleans, Brigitte was no longer there.

She was a seventh-generation witch, she had said. She predicted the Jazz would stay in Salt Lake but Stockton and Malone would never get a championship.

That's some first-rate divining.

In the interest of gender equity, this time I picked out a no-frills guy who called himself Michael. No fancy name, no spooky props, just a guy wearing a cowboy hat and a crystal pendant "just so I have something to hang around my neck."

But Michael was no witch. He was a Tarot card reader. He went on to say he was technically a "touchknell," which is a person who gets impressions from the aural imprint a person leaves after touching something.

I instinctively put my hand on my wallet.

He said before becoming a touchknell he had been a cowboy and bantamweight fighter. I figured all he needed now was "carnival barker" and his resume would be complete.

I told him I was hoping he could answer a few questions regarding the Utes and their game against Alabama, through supernatural means. He said if I had cash, he was in touch.

According to Michael, the good news for Utah fans is that they're going to win the Sugar Bowl and coach Kyle Whittingham will stick around for the duration of his new contract.

Too bad about that upcoming scandal.

Oh, and one other thing: The Utes will never, ever get in a BCS conference.

"No, they will definitely not," said Michael as he turned over three cards. "Look at that. You don't need me to interpret that!"

There on the folding table was a combination of cards he said he had never seen: Hangman, Fallen Tower and Death.

If I understand my tarot cards, which I don't, those are the Big Three of doom.

I had to admit, it did look pretty gruesome.

"The cards are always right, but they're open to interpretation," said Michael. "But there's no interpretation needed on the last one. I'm 100 percent sure on that last question. I'm sure it's right."

So long, Pac-10.

You can catch the Utes in Fort Collins, Albuquerque and Laramie for years to come.

The first question I asked, though, was who would win the Sugar Bowl. He said he was tempted to answer the team that scores the most points. Clever. But then he started turning cards. One was the Empress, mistress of the home, but there was also a Heartbreaker card, which he said meant there would be trouble involving the home.

Seeing how 'Bama is the designated home team, and considering there's a song called "Sweet Home, Alabama," that about answered it for Michael.

"It's gonna be heartbreak for Alabama," he said.

But Michael the touchknell didn't stop there. He was sensing something else. Some "hinkey stuff," which he said might be shenanigans by the officials, or maybe fighting between the teams.

He directed me to pick three more cards.

"Uh-oh," he said when he flipped over the Excess card.

"Something in his personal life," he said ominously.

"Whose life?" I said. "The coach?"

"Yes, the coach," he said. "Excess can be anything — drugs, alcohol, women."

After examining the cards further, he said it probably wasn't alcohol or drugs.

I didn't think it was women, considering (a) Whittingham has been happily married for over two decades, (b) he's not the type and (c) he works pretty much all the time.

Who has time for that when there's film to break down?

Michael went on to say that Whittingham would stay with the Utes for several reasons, one of them being that no other school would hire a scandal-ridden coach.

I didn't ask if he had ever heard of Mike Price.

"Yes," said the touchknell, "the coach will stay."

I don't need to tell you at that point I was starting to doubt Michael's clairvoyance. I wasn't buying the scandal part and I wasn't entirely buying the Pac-10 rejection either.

It must have been my night for skepticism, because I didn't even really believe the part about Utah winning the Sugar Bowl.

All I knew was when the predicting was over, the touchknell had touched me for $20.

There never seems to be a good witch around when you need her.


E-mail: rock@desnews.com