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A Bandwagon Fan’s Guide to Utah Football

NCAA Football: Pac-12 Media Day Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

​With the 2019 season mere days away, and expectations at an all-time high, bandwagon fans are sure to jump on the hype train and shoehorn themselves in to all the fun we’re about to have. Those fans may find themselves stuck in a situation where their loyalty is disputed when confronted by a life-long fan with a question or conversation that surpasses their shallow well of knowledge, but fret not; this guide is here to help.

University of Utah Football: A Brief History

​To the casual observer, Utah football may have well started when the school was invited to join the former PAC-10 conference in 2011 alongside Colorado, forming the current PAC-12. Boasting an overall record of 668-459-31 (a .590 win percentage) with a 17-5 bowl record and 24 conference titles, all dating back to 1892, the Utes have a rich and storied history.

​In its inaugural year, the University of Utah posted a 1-2 record, with two games being played against the local YMCA (though the dates in which these games took place is unclear, Utah would split the series), and a loss to Utah Agricultural College (now known as Utah State) the day after Thanksgiving. The program would go on a one-year hiatus before returning in 1914, and would continue to field a team every year until 1918 in the midst of World War I.

​As the team entered the 1900s, they found success under Joe Maddock, a former Michigan Wolverine tackle who also coached the basketball and track teams. In his six seasons (1904-1909), Maddock recorded a 28-9-2 record before (briefly) retiring.

​Maddock’s successor, Fred Bennion ushered in a new era for the Utes, coaching the first team to belong to a conference, playing for the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference (which included current conference rival, the University of Colorado) and posted a 16-8-3 record in his four seasons with the program. The Utes would trudge through the first quarter century of the 1900s with marginal success under the tutelage of Nelson Norgren (16-8-3 from 1913-1917) and Thomas Fitzpatrick (23-17-3 from 1919-1924), who coached the first team to claim a conference championship in 1922.

​Utah’s Mariano profile would rise significantly under head coach Ike Armstrong who took over the program in 1925, a position he would hold until 1949. In his 25 year tenure, Armstrong amassed an impressive 141-55-15 record (the most wins of any head coach in the history of the program), including thirteen conference titles (six straight coming from 1928-1933) and five total undefeated seasons (1926, 1928, 1929, 1930 and 1941).

​It was Armstrong who first gave Utah the identity of a defensive-minded program after his 1930 team allowed a total of 20 points all season (an average of 2.5 per game), while scoring 340 points. Despite his success, Amrstrong’s teams failed to find postseason opponents until 1939, where the Utes beat New Mexico in the Sun Bowl, 26-0, one season after joining the Mountain States Conference in 1938. After the 1949 season, Armstrong would leave upon accepting the position of athletic director at the University of Minnesota and was replaced by Jack Curtice, who attempted to field a more offensive-minded team.

​The Curtice era was moderately successful, claiming four more conference championships in his eight seasons, but is more famous for inventing the “Utah Pass”; an overhand forward shovel pass that is still commonly used by teams who use the spread offense.

​In 1958, Ray Nagel accepted the head coach position after Curtice accepted the head coaching job at Stanford. Nagel transitioned the Utes into the Western Athletic Conference in 1962, and we named co-conference champions in 1964, earning an invitation to the Liberty Bowl, where the Utes beat West Virginia 32-6 and finished ranked #14 in the Coaches Poll. Unfortunately, the historic season would mark a high point for the Utes that would not be rivaled for decades to come.

​Following Nagel’s departure in 1965 to coach for the Iowa Hawkeyes, the Utes would suffer through a carousel of unsuccessful coaches, including Mike Giddings (1966-67), Bill Meek (1968-73) and Tom Lovat (1974-76). Wayne Howard then helped revitalize the program in 1977. After posting a 3-8 record in his debut, Howard rebounded with a 8-2 record the following season, followed by 6-6 and 5-5-1 records the following two seasons and an 8-2-1 record in 1981 before abruptly retiring after season finale loss to BYU. Any momentum the program had at this point was dead as Chuck Stobart (1982-84) and Jim Fassel (1985-89) both failed to find any sustained success. This would change in 1990.

​Following in the footsteps of Ike Armstrong, new head coach Ron McBride deconstructed the way he built his teams, stating “The thing what I’m trying to do is bring a different approach to Utah football. It will be one where we’re going to build a defense forest and it’s going to be more of a smash-mouth type organization”, a tradition that would continue for years to come.

​McBride was brought in to Utah with the goal of keeping the Utes from getting completely embarrassed and able to finish in the middle of the pack within the WAC. McBride, however, wasn’t content with being just mediocre.

​While the 1990 team failed to post a winning record, it would be the only losing team the university would field for a decade. In McBride’s second season, Utah posted a 7-5 record, their first winning season since 1988, and followed that with an appearance in the 1992 Copper Bowl the following season, the first bowl appearance for the Utes in 28 years. During the McBride era, Utah would regularly compete in postseason contests, playing in six bowl games in his thirteen seasons with the Utes, including a 10-2 record in 1994 that ended with 16-13 win over Arizona in the Freedom Poll and a final ranking of 8th in the Coaches Poll.

​In 1999, Utah, along with BYU, Air Force, Colorado State, Wyoming, New Mexico, San Diego State and UNLV split from the Western Athletic Conference and created the newly formed Mountain West Conference after the then 16 team WAC became too convoluted for teams to find any success. In their first year as a member of the Mountain West, the Utes finished the season with a 9-3 record and a three-way tie for first place with BYU and Colorado State posting identical 5-2 conference records, but cracks in the foundation began to show as the Utes entered the new millennium.

​Coming into the 2000 season, Utah was favored to win the Mountain West title, but posted a 4-7 record, the first losing season for McBride since his 1990 debut and finished tied for fifth in the conference standings. After a successful 2001 campaign that finished with a 10-6 defeat over Pete Carroll’s USC Trojans in the Las Vegas Bowl, McBride turned in his third losing season in 2002, finishing 5-6. During this time, season ticket sales dropped dramatically, which proved to be problematic considering the costly renovation of Rice-Eccles Stadium, and with pressure mounting, McBride was fired, finishing his tenure with an 88-63 overall record. Enter Urban Meyer.

​After two shockingly impressive seasons at Bowling Green, the young, promising coach was offered the head coaching position at the University of Utah. In his first season, Meyer lead the Utes to a 10-2 record, finishing 6-1 in conference play with a 17-0 victory over Southern Miss in the Liberty Bowl on New Years Eve, finishing the season ranked 21 in both the Coaches and AP Polls.

​The 2004 season marked a turning point for the Utes nationally. Starting the season ranked 20th by the AP, the Utes slowly climbed the rankings, knocking off Texas A&M 41-21 and Arizona 23-6 in their first two games, followed by a 48-6 routing of in-state rival Utah State and a 46-16 drubbing of the North Carolina Tar Heels to finish their out of conference competition, while rolling each and every conference foe, en route to an undefeated regular season that saw the Utes ranked 6th in the final BCS ranking, and earning a spot in the coveted Fiesta Bowl, making history as the first team from a non-automatic qualifying conference to play in one of the six high-profile New Years Day games, where they would beat the #19 Pittsburgh Panthers 35-7. Quarterback Alex Smith was a Heisman finalist in what would be his final year with the Utes and would go on to become the first ever #1 pick in the NFL draft months later, being selected by the San Francisco 49ers.

​Meyer’s proven success at Bowling Green and Utah caught the eye of multiple big schools, and just as quickly as he had arrived, Meyer was off to coach the Florida Gators, where he would win his first of three National Championships and cement himself as one of the best coaches in the modern era.

​Following Meyer’s abrupt, yet expected departure, long-time defensive coordinator Kyle Whittingham took the reigns of a surging Utah program. In his first year, Whittingham mustered a 7-5 record in the midst of an extensive rebuild that ended with a 38-10 trouncing over Georgia Tech in the Emerald Bowl. Over the next two seasons, Whittingham would prove his worth with 8-5 and 9-4 records respectively before altering the course of history for Utah football forever.

​Opening the 2008 season unranked, the Utes shocked the Michigan Wolverines on national TV, claiming a 25-23 victory that propelled the Utes to a #22 ranking in the AP poll. Whittingham’s team would go on to record their second undefeated regular season of the decade after toppling the 16th ranked BYU Cougars 48-24 in their season finale, and clinching their second BCS bid.

​The 2008 Utes would go on to accept an invitation to play in the Sugar Bowl on New Year’s Day against Alabama, who was the top ranked team in the nation until falling to Urban Meyer’s #2 ranked Florida team in the SEC championship, effectively eliminating the Tide from competing for the National Championship.

​Utah was a 9.5 point underdog going into the game, but quickly jumped out to a 21-0 lead in the first quarter, eventually beating Alabama 31-17, leaving the nation stunned as Utah finished the season ranked 2nd in the final AP Poll of the season, with Sports Illustrated unofficially crowning the Utes as national champions (though the NCAA retroactively named the 2008 Utes national champions as of 2017). Whittingham’s success led to AFCA National Coach of the Year and Bear Bryant Award honors.

​Whittingham followed the success of the 2008 season with matching 10-3 records in 2009 and 2010. The program’s overall success at the turn of the millennium resulted in the program being extended an offer to join the then PAC-10 conference, becoming a member of a major conference.

​With Colorado and Utah officially joining the conference in 2011, The PAC-12 split into two divisions (North: Washington, Washington State, Oregon, Oregon State, Cal and Stanford; South: Utah, Colorado, Arizona, Arizona State, USC and UCLA), allowing the conference to establish an official conference championship game, which Utah was in contention for up until the final game of the season, when they lost to Colorado, giving the Buffaloes their first conference win of the season.

​The following two seasons marked the first two losing seasons during Whittingham’s tenure as the Utes struggled to keep pace in a larger, more competitive conference before finding their footing again in 2014. Whittingham would lead the Utes to a 9-4 record, claiming a 45-10 victory over Colorado State in the Las Vegas Bowl, a destination they would return to the following year, where the team would match-up with longtime rival BYU, beating the Cougars 35-28, finishing the season 10-3.

​The following seasons would see Utah continuously in contention to claim their first PAC-12 South title, but failing to win big games week in and week out, however that narrative would change in 2018, when the Utes posted 6-3 conference record, claiming their first division title in the process, eventually falling to Washington 10-3 in the championship game.

​All of this brings us to 2019, where Whittingham’s program is projected to clinch the conference crown, effectively placing them in the Rose Bowl, and possibly vying for a spot in the coveted College Football Playoff.

Who Are Utah’s Rivals? What are the most important games in 2019?

​Utah’s season kicks off against their most storied rival; Brigham Young University.

​Throughout Utah’s long history, BYU has been their fiercest rival, with Utah holding a 61-34-4 record over the Cougars, though that record does carry some controversy, a theme that seems to follow the Utes and Cougars every time they meet.

​Prior to 1903, BYU was known as the Brigham Young Academy and played against Utah six times, splitting the series, 3-3, however BYA ceased football operations in 1900 following the death of a player and did not field a team until 1922, after they had adopted the name of Brigham Young University. Officially, BYU does not recognize those first six meetings and insist the current record stands at 58-31-4 through 93 meetings.

​In the early years of the rivalry, Utah was the dominant team, evidenced by a 49-0 victory over the Cougars in 1922, and would win every meeting of the series until 1942, when BYU upset Utah 12-7. The series was put on hold from 1943-1945 in the midst of World War II when the Cougars failed to field a team, but continued in 1946, with Utah winning or tying the next 12 contests. BYU managed a three-game win streak from 1965 to 1967, though Utah’s dominance continued until 1971 when BYU hired the legendary LaVell Edwards to lead the Cougars.

​During Edwards’ tenure, the narrative switched and BYU became not only the dominant team in the series, but eclipsed the Utes as the best team in the state. In his first season, Edwards’ posted a 16-7 victory over the Utes, and over the course of two decades, would go on to amass a record of 19-2 over the Utes. Throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s, during Utah’s lowest point, only Wayne Howard and Jim Fassel would record wins over the Cougars, each claiming one victory during the respective stints.

​It was during this era that the rivalry would truly take shape. Towards the end of the 1977 matchup, Edwards put starting quarterback, Marc Wilson back into the game with just two minutes remaining in order to set a then NCAA record for 571 passing yards in a single game. After BYU defeated Utah 38-8, Utah coach Wayne Howard felt disrespected by LaVell and quoted, “This today will be inspiring. The hatred between BYU and Utah is nothing compared to what it will be. It will be a crusade to beat BYU from now on,” a promise that Howard fulfilled when he upset the Cougars 23-22 the following season.

​Fortuitously, the rivalry, known as the “Holy War”, due to the perceived religious differences between the two schools would only grow uglier in the decades to come.

​The 1980 edition of the Holy War would find BYU QB Jim McMahon famously engage with a group of Utah fans who were taunting the vaunted quarterback by proclaiming “scoreboard” after throwing for his final touchdown of the game, resulting in a 56-6 victory. Such smacktalk would become an integral part of the rivalry with hate-filled tidbits such as:

● “It was just as easy as it looked. It was like we were running against air. It was easy to break tackles and find holes. Their defense didn’t seem to be there,” quipped BYU running back Fred Whittingham (brother of current Utah coach, Kyle Whittingham), following the 70-31 drubbing by the Cougars in 1989.

● In response to Utah’s 1993 victory over BYU, their first in Provo in 22 years, Utah fans attempted to tear down the goal posts, leading to BYU nose guard Lenny Gomes to proclaim, “Typical Utah bullshit. All those guys think that’s all there is to life, But when I’m making $50-60,000 a year, they’ll be pumping my gas. They’re low-class losers.”

● During the 1999 meeting, a BYU fan yanked a flag down that was being carried by a Utah cheerleader, leading the cheerleader to physically engage with the fan, to which Utah wide receiver Steve Smith Sr to proclaim “Even our cheerleaders are kicking your butt.”

● After clinching a perfect season in 2004, quarterback Alex Smith announced, “I really hate them. Playing in the game helped me understand. They are the most arrogant people. It’s the whole church and state thing. They’re ‘the good kids’. We’re ‘the bad kids’. I didn’t feel it in my gut last year like I do now.”

● Following a dramatic last minute victory in 2007, BYU wide receiver, Austin Collie, chimed, “Obviously, when you’re doing what’s right on and off the field, I think the Lord steps in and plays a part in it. Magic happens.”

● Immediately after BYU’s most recent victory in 2009, Cougar quarterback Max Hall famously delivered this line in his post-game press conference: “I don’t like Utah. In fact, I hate them. I hate everything about them. I hate their program. I hate their fans. I hate everything. So, it feels good to send those guys home. They didn’t deserve it. It was our time and it was our time to win. We deserved it. We played as hard as we could tonight, and it felt really good to send them home and to get them out of here, so it is a game I’ll always remember.”

● Punter Tom Hackett excitedly declared “I’m lucky enough to be one of the many players on the football team that actually has never lost to these bastards, which leads me to end and say, this is Utah’s world and BYU’s living in it” prior to the two teams meeting in the Las Vegas Bowl in 2015.

​In recent seasons, much of the vitriol and drama has taken a back seat, likely due to the mutual respect between head coaches Kyle Whittingham and Kalani Sitake, but also because Utah and BYU no longer play in the same conference (currently, the Cougars are independent), leading to the matchup holding no significance outside of the historical weight of the series, which brings us to Colorado.

​The Buffaloes were one of Utah’s earliest rivals, dating back to their days in the RMAC from 1903 to 1962, playing each other every season during that span. After nearly a half century apart, Utah and Colorado renewed their rivalry in 2011 when both programs joined the PAC-12 and Colorado upset Utah 17-14, keeping the Utes from playing in the inaugural conference championship game. Since then, Colorado has only beat Utah one other time; a 2016 victory that culminated in Colorado claiming their first division title.

​This season, Utah will be tasked with two important conference games in USC and Washington, outside of their traditional rivals. While USC has fallen on hard times under head coach Clay Helton, the Utes have never won inside the confines of the LA Memorial Coliseum, and defeating one of the conferences perennial powerhouses on their own turf will go a long way in defining Utah’s season. With Washington, the November 2nd matchup could very well be a preview of what’s to come in the conference championship game and could help the Utes establish themselves as the PAC-12’s top team after falling to the Huskies on two occasions last season in dramatic fashion.

So Why Will 2019 Be So Special?

​There are several factors working in Utah’s favor coming in to 2019. First and foremost, is returning talent, and the core of that returning talent is the highly touted “Hallandale Trio” of quarterback Tyler Huntley, running back Zack Moss and wide receiver Demari Simpkins. The talented trio out of Floridas helped lead Hallandale High School to their first 5A regional finals in school history, with Huntley earning Gatorade Player of the Year honors as a senior.

Since joining the Utes, Huntley unseeded incumbent starter Troy Williams in 2017, competing 63.8% of his passes with 2,411 yards and a 15:10 touchdown to interception ratio. His 2018 season was cut short due to a season ending injury against Arizona State in week ten, however the talented QB was able to improve upon his previous season’s statistics, completing 64.1% of his passes and throwing a 12:6 TD to INT ratio, with a 140.1 passer rating.

Running back Zack Moss earned PAC-12 second team honors last season despite missing the last six games of the season with a leg injury and opted to forego the NFL draft in order to graduate with his teammates as potentially become Utah’s all team rushing leader.

Currently, Moss is just 573 yards away from passing current leader, Eddie Johnson, who rushed for 3,219 yards between 1984 and 1988. In 2018, Moss averaged 6.1 yards per carry on 179 attempts, meaning Moss could easily clinch the record before the halfway point of the 2019 season.

It’s not all offense for the Utes, though. Safety Julian Blackmon has moved over from corner, making room for the speedy Jaylon Johnson to leave his mark as one of the best corners in the nation coming into 2019, raking fifth in Paul Myerberg’s ranking of top defensive backs in the nation.

Beyond a wealth of returning talent, Utah’s schedule sets up nicely, opening the season against BYU on the road, before taking on Northern Illinois and Idaho State to complete the out-of-conference portion of the schedule. Utah should be able to start 3-0, barring an upset in week one. A road trip to USC kicks off the conference schedule, before taking on Washington State, Oregon State, Arizona State and Cal. At worst, Utah should be 7-1 at this point before a highly anticipated matchup with Washington at Husky Stadium. The final portion of the schedule concludes with UCLA, Arizona and Colorado, all three very winnable games for the Utes.

As if that wasn’t enough for Utah, offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig returns to Utah for his second stint with the team. His first? Well, that ended with an undefeated season and a win over Alabama in the 2008 Sugar Bowl.

2019 is shaping up to be one of the best seasons in Utah’s long history, so whether you’ve been a life-long fan or you’re just now deciding to follow along, there’s never been a better time to don the drum and feather.