The Utes finished 12-0 with a resounding defeat of Pittsburgh in the Fiesta Bowl, having become the first outsiders to break into the Bowl Championship Series. The season turned into a showcase for Smith and a bunch of other stars comprising a team that was talented, yet actually overachieved because of uncommon bonding.
That theme consistently emerged in interviews 10 years later with the key figures of '04 how the Utes came together. Smith became NFL's No. 1 overall pick the following April. Yet only two other players would be drafted in the first three rounds and one of them, safety Eric Weddle, was a sophomore that year.
"We had a ton of talent," said co-captain Morgan Scalley, "but what made that team what it was, was chemistry."
"We obviously were as talented as any [team]," Weddle said, "but no one was above anybody else. It was as if everyone was out to prove themselves."
And they showed what was possible at Utah, where fans were skittish about embracing expectations. In the Ron McBride era preceding coach Urban Meyer's arrival, the Utes tended to rise above gloomy predictions, but never live up to favorable forecasts.
That's why the marketing campaign seemed so bold and audacious, leading some fans to suggest the school was setting up Meyer to fail in his second year, coming off a 10-2 season.
One commercial showed Meyer walking across the Rice-Eccles Stadium field and saying, "They brought us here to shake things up. We did that. But I'll let ya in on a little secret: You ain't seen nothin' yet."
There was truth in the advertising. The Utes ransacked the Mountain West and dominated everyone else. Never mind the disclaimers a lack of quarterbacking experience throughout the league, Texas Christian's not joining the MW until the following season and nonconference opponents' posting a combined 19-27 record the Utes were unstoppable from start to finish.
They responded to Meyer's expectations. "He made you think you were the best," Scalley said. "People started to believe it, started to act like it."
The Fiesta Bowl trophy is by far the tallest in Utah's collection, positioned just inside the entrance to the school's new football complex. Yet the ending was somewhat unsatisfying, as the Utes faced the Big East champions. They wish they could have played one of the other three teams (USC, Oklahoma and Auburn) that were unbeaten prior to bowl games or, especially, competed in a playoff system.
"I certainly would certainly loved that opportunity," Smith said in May, when he returned to the campus to give a commencement address. "We're left with never being able to know."
What they do know for certain is the '04 Utes were bonded. Meyer says he learned "the incredible, intangible value of the unity of the team" that season. Fans' favorite memories include Smith's pass to Savoy that launched a scoring spree, punctuated by defensive tackle Steve Fifita's taking a handoff, shedding tacklers and scoring a late touchdown against BYU.
The players and coaches cite checkpoints that mostly came prior to the season, moments when they knew something extraordinary was unfolding.
A black-and-white photo on the desk of Scalley, now Utah's safeties coach, shows him with a diverse group of defensive teammates on a bench after practice. The scene "defines that season," Scalley said. "Regardless of what race, what background, we had a group of guys that recognized we were getting ready to do something special. … We had a lot of diversity, but everyone came together."
Scalley once told Meyer how the players were organizing weekly barbecues events that has started with the Polynesian players and spread throughout the team. Meyer was so encouraged that he immediately called his wife, Shelley, and declared, "We might win every game."
The bonding also broke down barriers between starters and reserves, a distinction that had worried Jay Hill as he worked in the weight room. "Slowly, what you saw that summer was the starters grabbing those down-the-line guys and pulling them with them and doing activities together," said Hill, then an administrative assistant and now Weber State's coach. "By the end of that summer, you could tell they were as tight as can be."
And it carried over to the Ute baseball field, where Meyer staged preseason practices. The daily warmup routine included 20-yard sprints, varying in number. One day, in the middle of the camp, Meyer announced the Utes would do the maximum 20.
The response? "Everyone went crazy cheering," Fifita said, and the players kept yelling through the series of sprints, encouraging one another.
As the season played out, the Utes encountered only one significant scare, when Air Force took a 14-0 lead.
"There was only one person panicking .. the head coach," said Meyer, remembering how Smith, Scalley and defensive coordinator Kyle Whittingham assured him, "We got this."
After that 49-35 victory, the Utes breezed through the schedule. All that stood between them and a historic bowl bid was BYU in late November. "No pressure here," athletic director Chris Hill joked to Meyer that morning, reminding him the difference between winning and losing was a BCS berth and a return to the Liberty Bowl.
The Utes recognized the stakes. "I mean, we were the first to do anything like it," Weddle said. "And a lot of teams or people could have wilted under the pressure."
Not the Utes. BYU cut the lead to 31-21 in the third quarter, only to have Savoy run 92 yards for a touchdown. Savoy "could never outrun anyone," Weddle marveled, but it happened against Texas A&M in the opener and BYU in the regular-season finale.
Then came the 35-7 rout of Pittsburgh in the Fiesta Bowl in Tempe, Arizona, with about 50,000 Ute fans as witnesses. It left some players wanting more. "Too bad we didn't get to face Auburn," Weddle said.
Scalley, however, has no regrets. "Not at all," he said. "We did all we could do."
Utah's 2004 season
Texas A&M 41-24
@Utah State 48-6
Air Force 49-35
@New Mexico 28-7
North Carolina 46-16
@San Diego State 51-28
Colorado State 63-31
* Fiesta Bowl
INSIDE • A look at where the 2004 Utes' coaches and players are now. > C2
2004 Final BCS Standings (Dec. 5)
1. USC (12-0)
2. Oklahoma (12-0)
3. Auburn (12-0)
4. Texas (10-1)
5. California (10-1)
6. Utah (11-0)
7. Georgia (9-2)
8. Virginia Tech (10-2)
9. Boise State (11-0)
10. Louisville (10-1)
Where are they now?
Coach, position Current school, position
Urban Meyer, HC Ohio State, HC
Kyle Whittingham, DC Utah, HC
Mike Sanford, OC Indiana State, HC
Gary Andersen, DL Wisconsin, HC
Kurt Barber, LB Erie, Pa.; private coach
Billy Gonzalez, WR Mississippi State, co-OC
Chuck Heater, DB Marshall, DC
John Hevesy, OL Mississippi State, co-OC
Dan Mullen, QB Mississippi State, HC
Keith Uperesa, OL Hawaii, dir. player personnel
Player, position Current job
Kite Afeaki, DL Weber State DT coach
Steve Fifita, DL Idaho State DL/OLB coach
Quinton Ganther, RB Weber State RB coach
Tommy Hackenbruck, LB Crossfit expert
Brian Johnson, QB Miss. St. QB coach
Bo Nagahi, DB Ute radio sideline reporter
Morgan Scalley, DB Utah safeties coach
Alex Smith, QB Kansas City Chiefs QB
Spencer Toone, LB Idaho State co-DC
2004 Utes in NFL draft
Player, pos. Year Rnd Team
Alex Smith, QB 2005 1 San Francisco
Sione Pouha, DL 2005 3 New York Jets
Chris Kemoeatu, OL 2005 6 Pittsburgh
Paris Warren, WR 2005 7 Tampa Bay
Jonathan Fanene, DL 2005 7 Cincinnati
Spencer Toone, LB 2006 7 Tennessee
Quinton Ganther, RB 2006 7 Tennessee
Eric Weddle, DB 2007 2 San Diego