This November will mark the twenty-year anniversary of the Utes' 34-31 victory over BYU down in Provo. It was a monumental win that completely changed the dynamics of the Holy War - as Utah hadn't won on the road in this rivalry in the twenty years prior to Chris Yergensen's 55-yard miracle.
Now, two decades later, the Utes hold a 7-3 record against the Cougars in their own stadium - including 2011's 54-10 stomping. It's been nearly as lopsided and uneven in the record books for Utah as it was for the Cougars two decades prior.
The difference, of course, is the razor thin margins that often dominate this rivalry. So, while the Utes seem to have the upper hand head-to-head, the scores are so terribly close that it's often designated a toss-up game - and that's exactly how it's played out most these years. Yes, there are exceptions, like 2008 and 2011, but they're not consistent enough to ever expect. In fact, we generally expect a bruising, tough, bitter contest and that's what we've received in three of the last four rivalry games - with each of those contests subsequently coming down to the final play. Utah is 2-1 in such games and 3-3 if you go all the way back to 2005, 2006 and 2007 - three contests that similarly came down to essentially the last play.
That has been the extent of the Holy War ever since Ron McBride rolled into town and made it competitive again. This is a series that has been decided by a touchdown or less in fifteen of the last twenty meetings. Those five comfortable victories came in 1995 (a 34-17 Utah victory), 1996 (a 37-7 BYU victory), 2004 (a 52-21 Utah victory), 2008 (a 48-24 Utah victory) and 2011 (a 54-10 Utah victory). They just don't happen often in this rivalry and because they don't, it's hard for any fan to ever expect anything less than a pulse-pounding, last second classic.
And that's probably what we're going to witness yet again this year.
Last year's upset of BYU is memorable but it also showcases everything I hate and love about this rivalry. I hate that I can't look at this game, even in seasons where the Utes are destined to be good, and think the potential of an easy win. Conversely, though, I can't ever count out Utah - even when they really have no business winning head-to-head. Last year, all things considered, BYU should have won. Utah was down a quarterback and their starting running back and doomed for a losing season. The Cougars, fresh off their quick, 2-0 start, were supposedly on the cusp of something great and then, like they do so well, they collapsed and lost their early preseason buzz. I think people forget that BYU entered last year's game actually ranked, which means the Utes finished 2012 with a win over a top-25 team - albeit one that didn't end there when the season wrapped up in January.
Still, Utah was not in a good position heading into that contest and it ultimately proved their best win of the season because, for whatever reason, the Utes still have the ability to step up and outplay the Cougars - even when their season is going nowhere fast.
Because of this, it's hard for me to look at this year's game as a loss. Granted, it very well could be a loss and there have been seasons where I think the better team won ('06, '07 and '09) but even then, Utah did what it needed to do in every one of those games to put themselves in position to win. It just took until 2010 for luck to break their way and the last two seasons, it's cemented on their side, which has given them a huge leg up in this rivalry as of late.
Now the Utes are looking for their fourth-straight win in this rivalry for the second time since since the 00s. To put that into perspective, the last time BYU won four straight against Utah was between their '88 loss and '93 loss - back, again, when they dominated this rivalry.
But like I said, the dynamics have changed and flipped in Utah's favor. It's definitely more balanced today than it was in the 80s, but the results still favor the Utes. Three in a row. Four of the last five. Seven of the last ten. Thirteen of the last twenty. Even with how close the results have been, the ultimate outcome generally seems to be a Utah win.
I don't know why that is, why a team can have so many close outcomes and yet still prevail at the level the Utes have over the last twenty years - but it's happened. Which is ironic because, between 2006 and 2009, it was the Cougars who successfully navigated the closeness of this rivalry. But that really is the only stretch where they've been consistent in winning those types of games.
Does that mean anything for this year? Probably not. What I know is that this year will most assuredly be close, just as it is almost every other year, and even though it'll feel like a true toss-up, deep down, knowing Utah's success, it won't be a true toss-up. History is on Utah's side ... even if it's not definitive.