Lewis: Utes' slide is Liberty's gain
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2004, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Not everybody was happy when the latest Bowl Championship Series rankings were released earlier this week, showing that the Utah Utes suddenly look like a long shot to reach the Fiesta Bowl, without considerable -- and not particularly likely -- help from higher-ranked teams.

But one guy was thrilled.

The Liberty Bowl's Steve Ehrhart had to have done a little dance when he saw the rankings, showing the Utes at No. 7 and outside the top-six ranking required at the end of the regular season to earn an automatic berth into the BCS. That's because if the Utes fail to earn that automatic berth, they are headed back to his game in Memphis.

No doubt about it.

Forget all of the eyelash-batting the Fiesta Bowl has done, trying to feed the intimation that it really might choose an unbeaten Utah team, even if it is not required to do so. If anybody believes that will happen, that the Fiesta Bowl would choose a No. 7 or No. 8 Utah team instead of, say, Texas, they must be new.

Go ahead and book your flight.

Meanwhile, Ehrhart will be sitting back in his chair, lighting a victory cigar. Landing an unbeaten Utah team for his game would be a dream come true -- even if Utah fans might not regard it quite the same way.

That's why Ehrhart portrays himself as proprietarily as he does this time of year, defending his game's contract to pit the champions of the Mountain West Conference and Conference USA on New Year's Eve and trying to make it sound as if the deal could actually stop a Utah team from answering an invitation to a BCS game.

It can't.

And it won't.

Having endured questions about the possibility of losing teams from those leagues to the BCS almost every year since the BCS was created, Ehrhart has long since mastered a whole production about how his bowl has been there for the Mountain West and Conference USA and how the BCS has never lifted a finger for them.

Which is all true.

But the implication that those leagues, in turn, owe it to the Liberty Bowl to abide their contracts ignores the reality of college football -- however unsavory that might sound -- and speaks more to the pride Ehrhart feels about his own game.

Fact is, the Utes are not going to let a piece of paper stand between them and the Fiesta Bowl's $14.4 million, and Ehrhart knows it. He's essentially just attempting to negotiate a higher buyout price every time he publicly insinuates that he's willing to hold the Utes hostage.

Besides, can you imagine the pressure?

The Utes make history by becoming the first mid-major to get invited to the BCS, but Ehrhart won't let them go? Pretending it was possible, Ehrhart would take more heat than Maurice Clarett.

But if the BCS does for Ehrhart what he himself cannot and delivers an unbeaten bunch of Utes to Memphis, well, so much the better. He gets his most attractive bowl participant in years, and probably one incredible game to go with it.

I mean, have you seen Louisville?

They're one the few teams in the country whose offense compares with the one the Utes run.

The Cardinals looked a lot like the Utes on Wednesday, in fact, when they used the first eight minutes of the game to open up a three-score lead on TCU -- the Frogs aren't looking like such a hot addition to the Mountain West anymore, are they? -- before eventually winning 55-28 on national television.

That made them 7-1 overall, with their only loss to No. 3 Miami, by three points on the road. They're ranked No. 12 in the AP Top 25 and could be top 10 by the bowl season, with an offense that averages within a half-point of the Utes at 45.38 per game and a quarterback in Stephan LeFlors who might be as good as Utah's Alex Smith.

While Smith has thrown for 2,196 yards, 24 touchdowns and just two interceptions in nine games, LeFlors has piled up 1,760 yards, 13 touchdowns and one pick in eight games. What's more, he completes a higher percentage of his passes -- 73.7 percent to 66.4 percent -- and even has tossed in a couple of hundred rushing yards, though that's only about half as many as Smith.

The point is, the Cardinals represent a more intriguing bowl matchup for the Utes than West Virginia, or whoever winds up winning the Big East Conference and landing on the other sideline at the Fiesta Bowl.

Which is why Ehrhart will be smiling every time the Utes win but drop in the computer ratings.

The only trick might be convincing the Utes to share in the enthusiasm, should they find themselves in Memphis for the holidays instead of under the desert sun.

mcl@sltrib.com