The Utes can't seem to outgrow the Holy War. Even though many of the fans want to move on, and openly suggest the rivalry just isn't important anymore, this week once again is proof positive of just how much the actual game means to both fan bases.
That's both good and bad.
It's good because, when you get down to it, college football is built around rivalries. It's the driving force of the sport, and while it might not make up for a losing season, a win over the team you hate carries a whole helluva lot of weight. It doesn't mean you instantly forget the eleven or twelve other games, but it does help ease the pain - something we saw last year.
The problem, the bad part about this rivalry remaining as relevant as it is, is that the Utes still haven't pulled away from BYU. Even though they've dominated the rivalry head-to-head much of the last few seasons, the programs are far closer than I think Utah fans would like to admit. That's not good. It's not good because, regardless of whether the play on the field shows it, the Utes are a member of the Pac-12 and BCS. BYU is not. Yes, they have a solid program that has seen remarkable success throughout its history; and yes, they've done more at their level than a whole host of BCS programs. But that doesn't change the fact, when you get down to it, that they're still in college football purgatory - a place they'll remain even when the BCS dissolves next season if they don't join the Big 12.
I know I may take heat for that last point. Certainly BYU has proven on the field they're a very capable program. But as the Utes have seen, and maybe underestimated prior to 2011, the difference between the BCS and non-BCS is staggering. Because of this, because there is a gap, and a widening of that gap, Utah being on the Cougars' level is bad news for this program. It's bad news because, at the end of the day, it means we're not pulling our weight in conference play - we're not winning those bigger games.
When the Utes joined the Pac-12 in 2010, the consensus was that the rivalry would probably take a backseat to spectacular conference challenges - games that could define a program and bring the best of the best in college football to Salt Lake. But that was predicated on the understanding that they would win some of those games. Just playing the game would mean little if the end result was always a loss.
So, as it was last year, and appears to be again this year, Utah's lack of success overall amplifies the Holy War. The game means more because, frankly, the Utes have failed at being a Pac-12 team. That sounds harsh ... but I think it's reality.
With their loss Saturday to Oregon State, Utah once again made this rivalry bigger than maybe it should be. A lot is on the line now - like any type of momentum heading into a monster stretch of games that are all losable.
We want to be bigger than the rivalry? Then the season can't be defined by it. Last year's best win was against BYU - and, until the Sun Bowl, the same was said for the year before that. Oregon State would have been an infinitely better victory, but it also would have made this week less important. Utah could have afforded a loss to the Cougars had they entered the game 3-0. But now? They can't. If there is any hope of a bowl game, of an even remotely successful season, the Utes need to win this week. It's just that simple.
Maybe when the rivalry resumes in 2016, Utah will be better positioned so that this game won't simply define their season. But that isn't the case right now. Which means, for another year, this is probably going to be an exciting game with a lot of emotion on both sides. The Utes will be in dire need of a win and BYU, who hasn't defeated Utah since the 2009 season, will be looking for a bit of revenge heading into the hiatus.
Like last year, I anticipate a close contest. But beyond that, I'm not exactly sure what else to expect. Certainly Utah's offense can score points, but their defense is just as likely to give up a ton of points. Taysom Hill killed Texas a couple weeks ago, but that was on the ground and not through the air, where it's clear the Utes still don't know how to defend.
Is that good news and does it bode well for Utah?
I think so. I think Hill's strength plays into whatever strength the Utes' defense has. But then, he's quick and that alone makes him deadly ... regardless if the defense does well against the run.
So, who knows how this game will play out. It's funny, BYU and Utah have kind of reversed roles as of late. For years, it was the Utes with the stingy defense and questionable offense - now it's BYU. Up until this season, Utah was more known for their defenses than offense and they rarely ever were expected to win games on the backs of that offense.
Now their only hope is to probably out-gun the other team.
Can they out-gun BYU?
If not, it's hard to imagine another win until Colorado.