We've spent the last two days hashing over the idea of continuing the Utah-BYU rivalry and I think the common feeling among most Ute fans is that the rivalry should continue, though maybe not annually. That sounds reasonable. There is just too much history to abruptly end the rivalry and even Kyle Whittingham walked back his comments about killing the Holy War off entirely. Like Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees, this thing will continue to exist, even if it's a pale imitation of the original.
What I do know, or at least what I believe, since it's not a given, is that this rivalry is probably bound to die sooner or later. I say this because of the radical adjustments we're already starting to see in college football and the widening gap I believe will occur between Utah & BYU because of those changes.
The problem with the Cougars right now is their lack of conference affiliation. While I get why they left the Mountain West Conference and understand that, without Utah, the conference just wasn't up to the snuff anymore, the shift we've seen in college football the last few years, the more focus on a four-team playoff and the potential rise of super-conferences, has left BYU very vulnerable. Without a conference, they risk losing ground to a great deal of programs that have already found their way under the BCS umbrella. If the future of college football is about to be dictated by the Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC, which very well appears to be the case at this point, not being a member of those four conferences puts any program in a precarious position.
For the Cougars, their future might not be totally in doubt, but the path is less clear today than it was when they set out on their independent adventures last year.
For one, you're already seeing an ungodly amount of money being raised by the bigger conferences. The Pac-12 showed last summer just how much money there is in covering college football and that wasn't even with the addition of the Pac-12 Network. In a few years, when the Utes are finally at an equal level of revenue sharing with other Pac-12 members, they will be far outpacing the entire revenue stream the Cougars get on their own with ESPN. When Utah officially accepted a bid for the Pac-12 and then BYU jumped to independence, that seemed, at least at the time, unlikely. Cougar fans were quick to point to their new television deal with ESPN and an unknown quantity of revenue that would certainly swamp anything Utah could get from the Pac-12.
That isn't the case anymore. Utah, which has often lagged behind BYU in total revenue, especially on the football field, when the two were in equal conferences, now finds itself in a position it's never been in - one that holds a lot of weight in terms of potential and future local success.
Secondly, the Cougars have already seen how difficult it is to schedule as an independent. While deals were reached in the early stages and there was a hope of becoming independent rivals of Notre Dame, the reality has set in, among some of the more rational BYU fans, that the scheduling conflicts of every other major BCS league has limited the possibilities, especially in terms of consistent possibilities. Now that's not to say the Cougars have failed to line up good and quality opponents, they haven't, but a great deal of their scheduling now is mixed with neutral site games and 2 for 1 deals that favor the opponent. I doubt that's what the fans had in mind, especially when you add the rhetoric of Tom Holmoe, who has done his damnedest to sell the idea of independence to wary BYU fans.
What has been realized over the last two years is that while scheduling has had its positives, trying to fill a 12 game slate with quality opponents is becoming increasingly difficult. More importantly, for an independent program, which might have to lock in opponents years in advance, it's stark how quickly the schedules dry up. That uncertainty, the fact that in 2016 only two opponents have been scheduled (compared to Notre Dame, which has 11 opponents scheduled), has to weigh on the minds of Cougar faithful.
It's why, when news broke last week that BYU was a potential Big East option, the idea didn't sound that far-fetched. If college football is moving closer to a playoff, conference affiliation just might prove the biggest ally at the moment. Even the Big East, with how weak and ravaged it's become over the last two years, is still infinitely better than being left out of the show altogether. Of course, the thought process, which could prove true down the road, is that BYU will be just as likely to make the playoffs as an independent as if they went and joined the Big East. But knowing how difficult it is to schedule, and the fact much of the Cougars' schedule plays out like a hybrid Mountain West Conference-WAC mix, are they willing to risk the potential perception hit they would take just to claim their independence? Moreover, if they continue struggling getting reasonable scheduling options and find a great deal of their bigger-named opponents wanting a neutral site or 2 for 1 deals, are they really in a better position than, say, Boise State in the Big East? That's debatable.
But for the time being, it does look BYU is going it alone and who knows how that will handicap their program, if at all, but it does bring up enough questions to debate the potential of the rivalry dying on its own because BYU essentially forces itself out of competing.
Now I don't want this to sound like I'm railing too hard against the Cougars' options and I understand the potential for things to turn around in the future. But looking at the changes we've seen in just a few short years, the apparent movement toward four dominant and prominent conferences, BYU's position in the entire football world is at stake.
They're not gonna just vanish and stop competing. I get that and I'm not suggesting it. But, over time, I think their continued path will lead to far bigger irrelevance than many, especially here locally, might believe. We already went over the revenue. We already discussed the consolidation of the four-major conferences and the difficulty BYU is having when it comes to scheduling on the level.
Add the fact Utah has won 7 of the last 11 games and their consistent out-recruiting of BYU the last three or so seasons, and that gap I talked about at the very beginning starts to become more noticeable.
So, it is my belief that the rivalry will continue but that over time each program will take on different levels of success. The Cougars won't just die and I'm not suggesting as much, but I do believe, over the next few seasons, we'll see a competitive drift between the two programs. Maybe last year was the start of that. Maybe BYU will prove me wrong. But with college football leaning in one direction and the Cougars leaning in the other, it's my feeling, my contention, that the Utes will outgrow the rivalry.
Of course, I am also of the belief that hasn't happened yet. But I think it will and when it does, when we've squeezed everything possible from this rivalry, then we can say it's done and then we can move on. But right now? Well, we're not there yet.