Never has there been a bigger or more imposing Holy War than what is about to take place Saturday night at Rice-Eccles Stadium. It marks only the second time in Holy War history where both Utah and BYU are ranked in the top-25. The last time that happened was in 1994, where the Utes won 34-31. Much like that season, both the Cougars and Utes have put up impressive numbers and win streaks. Until their loss to TCU in October, BYU held the nation's longest win streak. Utah is now in possession of that, last losing at the end of the 2007 season to, of course, BYU. That has been Utah's lone loss in twenty games and come Saturday, Ute fans hope it remains that way.
What's on the line in this Holy War for both teams varies. BYU has an extremely slim chance of making the BCS, however, they can still claim a share of the conference championship. That would give them their third in a row and with a victory over Utah, most obviously bragging rights for an entire year. For the Utes, it's not only an outright conference championship -- their first since 2004, but also a chance to do something no other non-BCS team has done, make a BCS bowl game twice in school history. Clearly, the Utes have more to lose entering Saturday. That can either be a blessing or distraction, since never before have they faced this good of a BYU team with so much on the line. In 2004, the Cougars limped into the Holy War with a 5-5 record and no one really gave them a chance. The final score echoed the disparity between the two teams, as Utah rolled to a 52-21 victory. I don't expect that type of dominance, which means this will not be just another game before the inevitable, as it seemed four years ago.
Of course, this is the Holy War and having a backstory might benefit Utah. It's risky facing a snake bitten rival with so much on the line. Just ask West Virginia last season. All that stood between them and a national championship berth were the lowly Pittsburgh Panthers. A rival to the Mountaineers, they entered the game in Morgantown big underdogs, coming in with a less than impressive 4-7 record. They left town with an improbable 13-9 victory, shattering any championship hopes for the West Virginia faithful. Having a legitimate threat standing between Utah and the BCS should present enough focus to not stray. That isn't to say there aren't risks, because the Cougars are very capable of defeating Utah, but this team seems to do better when presented with a large challenge and Saturday night, well they'll be facing the largest of them all.
So what makes BYU such a formable foe? Well for starters, their offense will be the toughest Utah faces this season. The Cougars average 36.4 points per game, second in the Mountain West, slightly behind Utah. They rank first in yards per game at 447 and their passing offense is first, too, with BYU averaging 318 yards per game through the air. On the ground, though, they aren't nearly as potent, as the Cougars manage only 129 rushing yards per game, which ranks 7th in the conference.
For Utah's defense, they will need to play a flawless game. Luckily, that defense has been pretty exceptional throughout the season, ranking 2nd in the conference in points allowed and 2nd in yards allowed. Their weakness, though, has been the secondary. The Utes give up, on average, 190 yards per game through the air. It's not a terrible stat, but it does put them at only 4th in the conference. The problem here, of course, is that BYU's offense is very efficient through the air and capable of doing fatal damage to teams with questionable secondaries. The Falcons, who rank 2nd in the conference in pass defense, allowed Max Hall to throw for 354 yards. If Utah is going to win, they need to not only pressure Hall, hopefully setting a tone early, but also defend like mad in the secondary. If they don't, then they better hope the offense is prepared for a shootout.
The good news, BYU's defense is pretty porous. Even though they looked pretty impressive early against weaker competition, since their 21-3 victory over New Mexico at the start of October, the Cougars have given up nearly 30 points per game. And that includes the 12 allowed against the anemic San Diego State Aztec offense.
Why has the Cougar defense struggled in the second half of the season? Well their secondary isn't stepping up. Including all 12 games, BYU ranks only sixth in the conference in pass defense. Their run defense isn't much better, as they rank sixth there, as well. That means Utah's offense should be capable of not only moving the ball through the air, but also on the ground. Which means if the defense can pressure Hall and do what TCU did so well, Utah should win. If Hall can pick apart Utah's secondary all day long, then the Ute offense will need to step it up and play a very impressive game. Good thing they had a tune-up game Saturday against the Aztecs, because the offense will really need to be clicking at a high level this weekend to finish the season 12-0. If they stumble, much like the offense did last year down in Provo, they will need to rely on the defense and it's very likely the game comes down to one or two plays like the last three Holy Wars. For pure football fans, that is the perfect ending to a near-perfect rivalry. For Utah fans, who are probably suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder after the last two contests, that won't be a welcomed sight. Hopefully it does not come down to the final seconds and if Utah's defense can play at the level they did against TCU, while the offense continues to play near-mistake free, it probably won't. But right now, that still might be a big if.
I don't expect a Utah blowout, but I also have a feeling this game won't be decided in the final minute. I don't know why, since the Utes have had a ton of games this season decided in the final minute, but I do believe they win comfortably. However, if they don't and only manage to pull out a win similar to what we saw against Air Force, Oregon State and TCU, I will undoubtedly take it.
I expect to debate with myself back and forth on this and the ultimate margin, meaning I could have a completely different prediction come Saturday. But for now, with all I've read and how I feel, I say the Utes win 31-21. Let's hear your predictions.