In its rise to the top of the Utah collegiate football heap this past decade, the University of Utah Utes have followed a prescribed season-opening recipe of tuning up on, and beating the snot out of, inferior opponents.
Not so for the 2015 season, which commences Thursday at Rice-Eccles Stadium with Utah taking on the University of Michigan Wolverines. In addition to its 11 national championships, Michigan has more victories than any collegiate football program on the planet.
But this big-time statistic hasn’t seemed to bother the Utes, who have beat Michigan twice in the past decade. The first time, in 2008, came on opening day. The Utes, playing in Michigan’s notorious Big House in Ann Arbor, Mich., narrowly beat the Wolverines 25-23 and then proceeded to win the remainder of its games, capping the season with a 31-17 victory over the almighty Alabama Crimson Tide in the Sugar Bowl.
And last season, the Utes soundly defeated Michigan 26-10. But this year’s matchup is sure to have more intrigue. And most of it has nothing to do with Utah.
In the off season, Michigan hired Jim Harbaugh, the firebrand coach who presided over the rise of Stanford’s football turnaround before a coaching stint for the San Francisco 49ers. It has been muttered by Utah fans in lonely bars along Main Street that Harbaugh might be the best coach to step on the turf at Rice-Eccles Stadium since Urban Meyer’s last home game in 2004.
Even with the excitement surrounding Michigan, or more accurately what Harbaugh plans to do with Michigan, the lingering sting that Utah could be playing BYU instead persists. Yes, another year will pass without this in-state showdown—a spectacle that was, before being abandoned by Utah athletic officials—among the longest-running college football rivalries.
This is one area where Michigan clearly prevails. The Utes could thump Michigan, and the Wolverines could move on to a mediocre season. But a single shining light in its schedule will lure it through to the finish line: its rivalry game against Ohio State, a matchup that resembles the one Utah has against BYU. A rivalry, which many simply call the “The Game,” that anyone who follows college football hopes will never fall by the wayside.
Speaking of the Utah versus BYU rivalry, known by some as the “Holy War,” when usually polite neighbors become divided across color (red and blue) lines, religion (Mormon and anything but), and beverage (beer versus Diet Coke), a poll conducted by UtahPolicy.com shows that, compared to other in-state college football programs, Utahns overwhelmingly believe that Utah will have the best season.
The survey, which polled 500 Utahns and was conducted by Dan Jones & Associates, shows that 40 percent of Utahns believe Utah will have the best season, while 18 percent picked Utah State and 17 percent picked BYU. A good percentage of Utahns (25 percent), don’t give a damn.
The survey also shows that 33 percent of devout members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints believe Utah will end up with the best record, while 26 percent say BYU will come out on top.
The true measure of in-state greatness, a year where Utah and BYU each play each other as well as the formidable team from the North Country, Utah State, could be a ways off. At the very least, BYU and Utah are on each others’ schedules from 2016 through 2020.
For now, Utah fans will have to settle for Michigan, and Harbaugh. Hey, it’s better than opening up against recent foes like Northern Colorado and Idaho State.
If you don’t have a ticket for Thursday’s game, that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy a fairly recent phenomenon that uncorks across the University of Utah campus on game day: widespread revelry involving the usual party substance of choice, alcohol.
Yes, an activity that a decade ago would have gotten you tossed in the back of a campus cop car is now widely acceptable on the dry, state-owned campus: drinking out in the open.
So, grab a 12-pack, play some beer pong with a stranger and, with the Cougars in mind, heckle some Wolverine fans.