OC'S CORNER

O’Connell: Despite Recent Results, The Rivalry Is Competitive

Aug 27, 2019, 11:37 AM | Updated: 11:59 am
Quarterback Jason Shelley #15 of the Utah Utes runs with the ball and stiff arms Dayan Ghanwoloku #...
Quarterback Jason Shelley #15 of the Utah Utes runs with the ball and stiff arms Dayan Ghanwoloku #5 of the Brigham Young Cougars in a game at Rice-Eccles Stadium on November 24, 2018 in Salt Lake City, Utah. (Photo by Gene Sweeney Jr/Getty Images)
(Photo by Gene Sweeney Jr/Getty Images)

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah – Rivalry week is upon us. This is my favorite game of the year, and an in-state battle that still matters just as much as it ever did.

Until the Utah Jazz make their way back to at least a Western Conference Finals, the Utah-BYU matchup is still the most important day on the sports calendar in our great state. The war for in-state relevance is far from decided, despite the recent trend in favor of Utah.

For evidence of this, look no further than the desperate attempts of Utah’s haughtiest fans to convince you how irrelevant BYU is (while talking more about BYU than any other opponent on the Utah schedule).

Trust me, I get it! Their arguments – however loud and unnecessary – are valid in a lot of ways. Utah Football outpaces BYU in every measurable category; football budget, players in the NFL, recruiting rankings, facilities, (I suppose that’s more of an eyeball test than “measurable” category, but you know what I mean) and of course, wins in the last decade.

On paper, the Utes are pulling away, having won eight in a row and favored to win their ninth straight game against their rivals. When you watch the teams practice, Utah just looks better. Bigger, stronger, and faster down the depth chart.

BYU has some formidable starters, but hardly any you would trade for someone at the same position in Utah’s top lineup. The more you evaluate the differences, the more it becomes clear that Utah should dominate this matchup.

Is The Rivalry Competitive?

But here’s the thing… They don’t quite dominate…

Calm down, Utah fans! I know that eight consecutive wins over your in-state rival is significant. The bragging rights of the last decade are well-deserved and hard-earned by the players who’ve won those battles for your benefit.

I think any Crimson-clad fanatic should glory in the win-streak. But I see a lot of folks in red getting a bit ahead of themselves in assuming that a win this year is a given. And that rivalry wins henceforth are guaranteed.

I saw the voice of the Utes, Bill Riley, put out a question on Twitter last week. “Will this rivalry ever be consistently competitive again?”

This rivalry is consistently competitive NOW. Seven of these last eight Utah wins have been fun and compelling games to watch. Seven of the last eight were one-score football games.

Even the Vegas Bowl –which started with an absolute debacle of a first quarter for BYU – ended with Utah fending off a late BYU rally. If you don’t count that, fine. Still, that makes six of the last eight matchups exactly what you would expect of any rivalry game!

The streak is impressive and important, but let’s not pretend that it has been built on repeated mollywhoppings. Utah has relied on blocked kicks, missed kicks, goal line stands, and historic comebacks (that one was last year) to squeeze out wins over their hated rival.

These are glorious, epic moments in the history of college football in our state, the very lifeblood of what makes college football great. So while I understand Utah fans’ desire to be dismissive and unconcerned about the rivalry, the gap on gameday is not yet large enough to justify that mindset. Not even close.

Shifting Roles

Rivalry roles have clearly reversed over the last 25 years. Now it’s the Cougars who are punching above their weight to try and bring down an established Pac-12 and perennial top-25 program. I’ve shared my thoughts in writing and on the radio that BYU fans are unrealistic in expecting their team to compete every year with all of the aforementioned measurable disadvantages.

I’ve been wrong about that. Because what’s unrealistic is expecting them to win consistently against Utah. They’ve proven they will compete. In defiance of all quantifiable differences between these two teams, BYU will unfailingly compete. But in a college football landscape with no place for moral victories, that’s certainly not enough.

So if you’re reading this as a BYU fan who dislikes the rivalry because your team hasn’t won in a decade, I think I understand your plight. But if you’re a Utah fan who doesn’t like this rivalry because you believe BYU to be so far beneath your Utes, you’re simply not paying attention to how these games actually play out.

More likely, you’re selectively forgetting your own sweaty palms and nervous eating as you watched Taysom Hill line the offense up for a goal line play, or the BYU offense trot out a two tight-end set that triggered bad memories.

BYU might not be as nationally relevant as they once were, but they are every bit as relevant to Utah, because no matter how lopsided it is supposed to be, on game day the Cougars push it to the brink.

Utah is favored to win again, and they should be. BYU is geared up and confident they can keep it close and give themselves a chance to win, and they should be. Recent history has shown both of these to be valid hopes.

The deep-rooted belief that your team will win this time around because of (or despite) all of the precedent, preseason hype, pundit input, and preparation is exactly why this game is the most fun/aggravating/thrilling/maddening/important matchup on the whole schedule.

Because even though the chasm between these two programs is growing wider and wider by the year, when the pads are on and the ball is kicked off, the battle for Utah bragging rights still has all the hallmarks of a great rivalry.

See you Thursday.

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