Where will you be on Aug. 29?
Around 50,000 fans will be at LaVell Edwards Stadium – the game is not yet a sellout, if you can believe that. Thousands more will be watching on ESPN. I’m sure you have a neighbor or family member who couldn’t care less about college football, and on that specific Thursday night will be watching Netflix or “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” on NBC.
Tell them this: This year’s BYU-Utah football game is the biggest in the history of the rivalry.
Before you doubt that premise, realize that this game means so much to both teams.
Utah is the favorite to win the Pac 12 this season and reach that elusive Rose Bowl berth or beyond. The Utes have won eight in a row in the series and many are calling this Kyle Whittingham’s best team.
BYU is coming off a 7-6 season but returns a boatload of experience. The drive to end the eight-game losing streak to the Team Up North is real.
Here’s why this game means so much to the Cougars.
BYU has a really difficult stretch to open the season, the only team in the country to begin the year with four straight Power 5 opponents. A win against Utah could propel the Cougars on a nice run to the Top 25. Since the teams parted with the Mountain West Conference – Utah to the Pac 12, BYU to independence – they have both achieved a modicum of success. The Utes won the Pac 12 South last season. BYU did not extend the contract of head coach Kalani Sitake, so he would like to enter the 2020 season with another multi-year deal.
There have been some big games in this series with conference titles on the line, or in a bowl game (Las Vegas 2015), but nothing like what we’re going to see at LaVell Edwards Stadium on the 29th.
It’s well documented that seven of the eight Utah wins have been one-score games, plenty of them that the Cougars could have won with a play or two at the right time. Last year’s game ripped the heart out of BYU fans. Up 27-7 in the third quarter, the Cougars fell apart and lost 35-27. Even then, BYU had a couple of chances to drive for the tying score.
The offensive game plan was nearly perfect. The defense was stout until several key injuries helped changed the momentum. Still, another loss is simply another loss.
It’s also unique that the series has turned around so much. During the ‘80s and ‘90s, the Cougars dominated. In the 2000s, the Utes started to get more competitive as many of its players had been spurned by BYU. Now, there are some Cougars – including starting quarterback Zach Wilson – who are at least partly motivated by trying to prove the Utes wrong for not recruiting them.
Both teams will have many more games to play after this one. A loss sends the loser on a certain path, the winner on another. BYU has other big games to play against Tennessee, USC, Washington, Boise State and Utah State. Utah has a whole slate of Pac 12 games that, in the long run, are probably more important to the program.
But the first one is such a huge tone setter for both teams.
I once got a phone call from a former BYU football player who was on the team back in the 1940s. He told me about a huge brawl up in Salt Lake after a Cougar-Ute contest that spilled out of the stands and continued on the field. A fire truck was sent into the fray to cool the combatants down.
That’s not going to be the case for this year’s BYU-Utah game.
But it might as well be. This will be the biggest and most important game of the whole series. It’s the 100th meeting between the two schools. BYU once won nine in a row (1979-1987) and the Utes won nine consecutive from 1929-1937.
Welcome to … OK, I’m not going to call it the “Holy War.” That’s too crass. Welcome to the most hotly-contested rivalry in the country.
Whatever it means to you, it means more to the players and coaches who will take the field.
Follow Darnell Dickson on Twitter @darnellwrites or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.