It's early December, and that can only mean one thing: bowl season is afoot. The programs selected to participate in bowls begin reaping the rewards of a hard-fought season.
As Utah doesn't play its bowl game until December 31, 2011, it had the luxury of taking a week off from practice, giving the players much needed recuperation time after what proved to be an extremely physically taxing inaugural Pac-12 season.
For coaches, the time was spent recruiting during a period that is considered crucial in the recruiting process with National Signing Day coming up in February. For those still undecided, or not whole-heartedly committed to their program of choice, visits from coaches become increasingly vital, and influential. Of course, it doesn't hurt to walk in the door of a recruit's home with a bowl invitation in hand, or a tenth consecutive bowl appearance.
Thursday afternoon saw Utah's bowl season kick into full gear with the first practice of the season. Though practice recommenced Thursday, bowl preparations have been in full swing all last week, as film study and weight lifting sessions continued as usual.
According to players and coaches alike, it was good to get back on the field to begin the process of putting the costly and disappointing Colorado loss behind them.
"It's still there for us a little bit, I think. It's hard not to think about what might have been, but we're not dwelling on it, we're looking for a way to use it to fire us up going into the next game," said John White, who is very much looking forward to his first bowl game experience.
Though looking forward to the bowl game and all that entails, White is still side-lined with the ankle injury suffered in the Colorado game, and was held out of Thursday's practice. White is still expected back for the game against Georgia Tech on December 31, 2011 in El Paso, Texas.
"If we played a game today, John White would not be able to go," Whittingham revealed. "Since the bowl is so late, we feel There's plenty of time for [White's ankle] to heal completely."
When asked whether or not his team was struggling with the loss, head coach Kyle Whittingham dismissed the idea, stating that his team had moved forward, and dealt with the loss.
"It was a good practice, and I thought everyone flew around pretty well today, now, with their legs back a little bit from the rest," said Whittingham. "It was good to get back on the field and get back after it today."
Both the offense and defense are acutely aware of the vibrant running game of Georgia Tech, and what that means to them.
"We know, with that offense they run, they're going to eat up the clock," said wide receiver Devonte Christopher. "So we know we're going to have be efficient, and take advantage of every possession."
"[The option] is always different, a challenge. The key for us is playing assignment-sound defense, " said safety Brian Blechen. "If one person is out of position, it could turn into a huge play, or a score. So it's real important that everyone takes care of his assignment and stay disciplined."
Utah is following the same schedule as it did for the Sugar Bowl in 2009, so the process is proven, and built to minimize distractions. The team will practice three times a week toward the end of the week, to accommodate finals and classroom work.
Players will be dismissed for Christmas on Saturday, December 24 and December 25, and are expected back in El Paso on December 26th, meaning some will get there on their own dime.
One difference from bowl practice and regular season practice is that the travel squad and scout team are divided, and finish at different times as the Utes have become proficient at maximizing reps for new/younger players, a tough balance considering the bowl preparation that has become synonymous with Utah football.
The Utes were extremely upbeat and complimentary of the Sun Bowl's hospitality and organization."
"The [Sun Bowl] has a reputation of doing things the right way, and we're looking forward to this match-up," said Kyle Whittingham. "It's strength on strength, so we'll see how we do with the scheme, and then executing that on-field."
Since the announcment of location and opponent, Utah has prepared for Georgia Tech the same way it did for Air Force, and Navy in the Poinsettia Bowl; ruining Whittingham's plans for entrance in the Pac-12.
"Once we switched conferences, the one thing we said was 'at least we don't have to play Air Force anymore," joked Whittingham. "Now, we're here again with a different opponent, but the same type of offense that's tough to defend."
More than anything else, the Utes want to put a win for the outgoing seniors, putting much pressure on the situation.
"We had our streak snapped last year against Boise State, but the goal is, at least for the seniors, to start another one - this year," revealed Devonte Christopher. "We want to start that back up again, and we are using that Colorado loss as a motivator."
Utah practices Friday, Saturday and not again until next week in preparation for the bowl game.