Utes enter hiatus controlling Holy War series

Chris Nicoll-USA TODAY Sports

Utah has now won four-straight over BYU as the teams enter a two-year hiatus.

In this long and emotional rivalry, Saturday's win by the Utes certainly didn't feel historic or improbable or important. It didn't alter the way we look at the rivalry, or provide the fireworks that are generally reserved for memorable victories. In twenty years, this game will be nothing more than a faded memory.

And that's perfectly okay.

Utah football has taken control of the Holy War and hopefully there is no looking back. There shouldn't be any looking back because, for the first time since the 1960s, the Utes football program is head and shoulders better than their rivals to the south.

A few years ago, a statement like that could have been challenged. But I think Saturday night definitively proved how wide the gap is becoming between Provo and Salt Lake City. The Cougars, for all their grit and determination, just can't stack up, head-to-head or otherwise, with Utah. They're a good non-BCS team, and occasionally might field a better team, but on the whole, the contrast between both programs is astonishingly stark - the Utes are finally looking like a BCS team and BYU, regardless of their win over Texas, has firmly established itself among the lot of fairly average mid-major programs.

While I don't think Utah has fully outgrown the rivalry, and it's still an amazing game with an immense amount of atmosphere, both programs are heading in different directions and that will only continue until the Cougars somehow wrestle themselves a Big 12 invite. That's not likely.

So, Utah moves on and the Holy War takes a brief break. When these teams resume in 2016, I expect the gap to be even wider, and I hope, from the Utes' end, they've built themselves a fine Pac-12 program - and not just one that has the upper hand on their rival.

You see, as great as the Utes have been at pulling ahead of BYU, they've yet to take the next step at their current level. This team has done well in out of conference play as a Pac-12 member, losing only once in the past three seasons (USU, last year) - but the major conference wins and contending for something other than a bowl game has eluded them. Even this year, Utah is 0-1 in conference play.

That has to change. Because as much as I enjoy beating BYU, and watching how the Utes went from the toilet bowl in this rivalry to dominating it, our seasons have to be defined by more than what we do against the Cougars. It could start in two weeks with a win over UCLA, at home, which would be infinitely better than what Utah did this past Saturday.

At the end of the year, the Utes won't be judged by what they did against BYU because the Cougars are far less relevant today than they were twenty or even ten years ago. Much has changed, and that change has put Utah in position to really build an elite program in an elite conference. That has to be done beyond the realms of the Holy War, though. As great as the rivalry has been to Utah, it's a game that can't overshadow everything else the Utes do because then that means, as much leverage as we have in this rivalry, we're still not yet ready to outgrow it. That can only happen with consistent conference success so that each season isn't shaped by whether or not Utah grabs that all too important win over a team they've defeated now nine out of the last twelve games.

Saturday was nice, and enjoyable and definitely a huge win in a waning rivalry, but it needs to be more - it needs to be a step toward relevancy again. The Utes need to take advantage of this win, use it as a confidence builder, grab hold of that momentum, and ride it to a season-defining win next month. That's something they couldn't do last year, or the year before that, and it's cost 'em precious standing in the Pac-12. If they're truly going to leave behind the Cougars, which, let's be honest, would be both satisfying and needed, it starts by putting together a resume of a legitimate Pac-12 team - one that is capable of winning major conference tilts against good opponents.

As much as Saturday's win saved the season, and gave Utah new hope, they now need to take advantage of it because I guarantee you that if BYU remains the Utes' biggest win come November, we'll be toiling toward the bottom of the conference again. That would absolutely be unacceptable. Almost as unacceptable as losing to BYU.

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