Saturday's Holy War won't be for a Mountain West title or BCS bid. Neither team has had a great season and both own lopsided losses to superior foes. Yet this game still means something. It might not feel as important as last year, but maybe in the bigger picture it is.
I say this because I do believe one team has far more to lose than the other. Which is rare in this rivalry because the stakes are generally high on both sides. Last season, BYU had an outside shot at the BCS with a victory over Utah and would have certainly tied for the conference championship had they won. That's something. It might not mean as much as 13-0 and a Sugar Bowl victory over Alabama, but in the entire context of this rivalry, denying the Utes a chance at perfection would have provided them their biggest win in the Holy War since upending Utah in 1984 to continue their original - and only - Quest for Perfection.
But who has more to lose? The team that has produced a fairly good rebuilding year or the one who was supposed to have the season to end all seasons?
I think you know where this is going.
BYU entered 2009 expected to contend for the BCS. Outside of Oklahoma, all their tough games came at home. It was a schedule set up perfectly for at least a run at the Mountain West.
Then they stunned the Sooners. It was a huge victory that propelled BYU up the rankings and into the national championship picture. Premature as it was, the Cougars looked like the team destined to run the table and potentially had a strong case for a title shot.
Then two weeks later they got blown out, at home, by Florida State. It was a game the Cougars were never in and it unraveled any hopes of the BCS and their longshot national championship bid. Even with that loss, though, they still had a chance to claim a third Mountain West title in four years.
But, like in their game against the Seminoles, they were badly exposed by the TCU Horned Frogs. It was another ugly loss that dropped BYU from the conference title race and left them wondering what had actually happened to their once great season.
Sure, the Cougars bounced back and haven't lost since - but those games were against opponents they should have easily defeated. And, outside of New Mexico, they did. Like Utah, they took care of business in the easy games and lost the tough ones.
But their season was supposed to be more than that. Especially after they beat Oklahoma. Granted, the Sooners haven't turned out to be nearly as good as most thought prior to the season (they were ranked 3rd then and now they're fighting to stay above .500 at 6-5). But the win gave them the push needed to jump both Boise State and TCU. Which, theoretically, made them the front-runners to the BCS.
Obviously that didn't happen. For the second straight year, the Cougars saw their great season go up in smoke. And now they're left trying to salvage it. Losing to Utah surely undercuts any chance to make something out of what has happened this year.
On the other side of the rivalry we have Utah. The Utes are coming off their best season in school history and have put together a rather decent rebuilding year. Compared to the last time Utah had to rebuild after going undefeated (2005 when they went 7-5), things have gone fairly well. In fact, the Utes aren't worse than the preseason expectations.
Some might have hinted at the possibility of a repeat BCS performance and potential conference championship run. However, outside of their drubbing by TCU, Utah barely lost at Oregon (who's playing for the Pac Ten title next week) and won every other remaining game. Their season has almost mirrored that of BYU's - except this is what we expected. Especially when you realize the Utes made a quarterback change only a few weeks ago and now start a true freshman.
That true freshman will walk into LaVell Edwards Stadium tomorrow afternoon and try to lead Utah to an important win over their rival. But, with how things have gone this season, it isn't nearly the must-win that it is for that rival.
It's a must-win for BYU because a loss here would mean that Jordan Wynn, a player who last year was starting in high school, beat them. A freshman quarterback winning in a rivalry game could set the tone for the next three years. With how much the Cougars lose on offense after this season and how much talent Utah brings back, it isn't impossible to see a scenario where the Utes aren't just better than BYU in 2010 - but significantly better.
If that is the case and the Cougars can't win Saturday, they are looking at the position they found themselves in prior to 2006. That won't sit well with the Cougar faithful. Especially if Utah wins out and then puts together another memorable campaign next year.
For the Utes, though, a loss would not damn their program. It would sting, don't get me wrong, but they can regroup and finish the year with a respectable record in what has become a season of transition. They know next year BYU travels to Salt Lake and that Wynn will have far more experience running this offense. They also know the Cougars will be in a situation similar to Utah this year.
Now I don't know if that means BYU will want this more or that Utah will come in relaxed and loose. I don't know if it'll even make a difference. That isn't the point. What I do know is that after this year's rivalry game wraps up, the future will be extremely bright for Utah regardless of the outcome. For the Cougars, if they lose, there will be far more questions than answers.