Both teams lost their final regular-season games, with the Utes falling to Colorado 17-14 at home and Georgia Tech losing to Georgia 31-17.
However, the teams had different momentum swings through the season as Georgia Tech (8-4, 5-3 ACC) won its first six games then lost four of its last six while the Utes (7-5, 4-5 Pac-12) won four of their last five games.
The Utes had a chance to play in the Pac-12 title game if they'd beaten Colorado. Instead, they'll have to be satisfied with finishing the season against the Yellow Jackets, a team they beat 38-10 in the 2005 Emerald Bowl in San Francisco to give coach Kyle Whittingham a 7-5 record in his first year as head coach.
"I still consider it a major bowl so I'm excited," Utah offensive lineman Tony Bergstrom said. "It's definitely the best scenario for us at this point."
In addition to the recent history with Georgia Tech, the Utes have familiarity with Johnson's triple-option offense, too. Johnson turned Navy into a solid program that qualified for the 2007 Poinsettia Bowl game against the Utes.
Johnson didn't coach the Midshipmen in that game since he was named Georgia Tech's coach prior to the bowl, but the Utes did have to tangle with his triple-option offense Navy used so effectively.
Navy, which led the nation in rushing for three years in a row producing more than 350 yards a game under Johnson's care, managed 316 yards against the Utes but still lost the game 35-32.
Like Navy, the Yellow Jackets have had a lot of rushing success by using the triple option. Junior quarterback Tevin Washington has rushed 222 times for 890 yards and 14 touchdowns. He is 63-for-135 for 1,515 passing yards and 10 touchdowns.
Sophomore quarterback David Sims is another rushing threat, having rushed 135 times for 698 yards and seven touchdowns.
Utah defensive lineman Dave Kruger said the Utes' familiarity with the option thanks to their previous annual battles with Air Force will help them prepare for the Yellow Jackets.
"We don't mind too much," he said. "Playing an option-type team is definitely harder for the defense, but our defense is used to playing Air Force so we should be OK."
Stephen Hill, a 6-foot-5, 206-pound junior, leads the receivers with 26 catches for 785 yards and four touchdowns.
The Yellow Jackets faced three ranked teams in 2011, upsetting then-No. 5 Clemson 31-17 before losing to then No. 10 Virginia Tech 37-26 on Nov. 10. They finished the season with the loss to No. 13 Georgia.
The Utes are 12-4 all-time in bowl games, which included a winning streak of nine bowl games that ended last year with a 26-3 loss to Boise State in the Las Vegas Bowl.
Utah's first bowl appearance was in the 1939 Sun Bowl, when it shut out New Mexico 26-0.
"We're excited about the opportunity to represent the Pac-12 conference in the Sun Bowl," Whittingham said. "This is a longstanding and prestigious bowl game, and we are looking forward to playing in El Paso."
Running back John White, defensive lineman Joe Kruger and offensive lineman Sam Brenner, who were hurt in Utah's loss to Colorado, are expected to recover in time to play in the bowl game.
White needs 103 yards in the bowl game to tie the school record of 1,507 yards set by Carl Monroe in 1982.
White had a season-low 28 yards against the Buffs before leaving the game with an ankle injury.
Getting back on the field and winning is more important than the record, he said.
"Coming off a bad loss, I'm just worried about winning the game now," he said.
2011 Sun Bowl
P Georgia Tech vs. Utah
Dec. 31, noon MST
Sun Bowl Stadium, Campus of University of Texas at El Paso, Texas
Sun Bowl Stadium opened in 1963, seating capacity of 51,500
TV • Ch. 2
Tickets • Range from $15 to $150
Payout • $4 million
Category Avg Ranking
Passing Yards 142.8 112th
Rushing Yards 316.8 3rd
Points For 34.9 19th
Points against 25.8 60th
Passing Yards 171.6 99th
Rushing Yards 137.1 82nd
Points For 24.6 78th
Points Against 19.7 18th
(8-4, 5-3 ACC)
Sept. 1 vs. Western Carolina, W, 63-21
Sept. 10 at Middle Tennessee, W, 49-21
Sept. 17 vs. Kansas, W, 66-24
Sept. 24 vs. North Carolina, W, 35-28
Oct. 1 at North Carolina St., W, 45-35
Oct. 8 vs. Maryland, W, 21-16
Oct. 15 at Virginia, L, 24-21
Oct. 22 at Miami, L, 24-7
Oct. 29 vs. Clemson, W, 31-17
Nov. 10 vs. Virginia Tech, L, 37-26
Nov. 19 at Duke, W, 38-31
Nov. 26 vs. Georgia, L, 31-17
(7-5, 4-5 Pac-12)
Sept. 1 vs. Montana State, W, 27-10
Sept. 10 at USC, L, 23-14
Sept. 17 at BYU, W, 54-10
Oct. 1 vs. Washington, L, 31-14
Oct. 8 vs. Arizona State, L, 35-14
Oct. 15 at Pittsburgh, W, 26-14
Oct. 22 at California, L, 34-10
Oct. 29 vs. Oregon State, W, 27-8
Nov. 5 at Arizona, W, 34-21
Nov. 12 vs. UCLA, W, 31-6
Nov. 19 at Washington State, W, 30-27 (OT)
Nov. 25 vs. Colorado, L, 17-14