The ’70s and the ’80s: Mention these two decades to BYU and Utah fans, and different memories come to mind. For Cougar fans, it might be that of LaVell Edwards guiding their program to a national championship and repeated national rankings. For Utes fans, doldrums—most seasons were filled with losses.
Both also know this era was one in which the Cougars dominated, winning 19 of 21 contests.
Of the most recent 21, however, 15 have gone the other way, and it started with the leg of Utah’s Chris Yergensen. Now, the question is whether the tides of superiority between the programs have sufficiently shifted to justify ranking one program over another.
The change of competitiveness in the so-called Holy War is one reason why a sports history expert says the 2016 version of the BYU-Utah rivalry is the biggest since 1993, when Yergensen’s 55-yard field goal at game’s end—after he missed multiple field goal attempts in the same game—provided a moon for that tidal change. Others include BYU playing this season while being reviewed by the the eager-for-expansion Big 12. (The Cougars’ lack membership in one of the titanic leagues known as the Power 5 is something the Utes, in the Pac-12, are enjoying for their sixth year.) Either way, the split over the competence of the programs is part of a high level of passion surrounding the rivalry.
“BYU had … run roughshod over the Utes for a couple of decades. [Utah’s 1993 win] is what announced to the people of Utah that the Utes were going to be competitive again in the rivalry,” sports historian Jorge Iber, says. “Now, it’s pretty much 180 degrees and now the Utes are the dominant team. … The success that Utah has had recently, and the religious affiliation that many feel toward BYU, gives the game a bigger feel.”
A major implication to Utah’s program surpassing BYU’s is evidenced by its recent head-to-head success—the Utes have defeated the Cougars five straight times—as well as by Utah’s advantage in conference affiliation and trophies in the Bowl Championship Series, says Matt Sanders, a Utah State University professor who teaches about power.
Kalani Sitake was a Utah assistant coach during four of the Utes’ five straight rivalry victories. But now, he is BYU’s head coach and brushed it aside in his weekly press conference.
“I’m not really worried about the past,” Sitake says. “You can make whatever story you want.”
Utah’s arguable superiority would be only on the recruiting front, says Sanders, who is a BYU graduate and college football fan.
“I wonder if the only people it matters to is the highly rated recruits in the state who are LDS and will make the choice between BYU and Utah,” Sanders says. “Because as good as Utah is—even if Utah won the national championship this year—I think the die-hard BYU fans would say it doesn’t really matter. … The door swings both ways on that assessment.”
Under (Big 12) review
The Big 12 provides greater bowls, greater telecommunication reach, greater chances for a national title—greater everything, basically—for BYU. The school, which lacks conference affiliation, is one of 11 finalists, according to ESPN. A win over Utah would help the Cougars’ chances, says Iber, a history professor at Texas Tech University and whose specialization is actually American sports history.
Iber points out that BYU already beat Arizona this fall.
“If BYU were to defeat Utah, that would be a second Pac-12 team this season,” he says. “That would be a feather in BYU’s cap.”
BYU also travels well given an LDS population scattered throughout the United States, and Mormons are increasing “rapidly” in Big 12 areas like Lubbock, where Iber works. An LDS temple and growing number of congregations are found in the city, he says.
The floated-about problem for BYU’s admission of a lack of an LGBTQ policy won’t ultimately be a factor, predicts Iber, a U of U graduate.
“The more you can make the statement that [BYU] is a religious institution that is affiliated with a particular religious organization, that [an anti-LGBTQ approach] is [its] values,” Iber says. “I would argue that they have the right to embrace their particular perspective.”
Earlier this summer, a coalition of 25 LGBTQ advocacy groups urged the Big 12 not to admit Brigham Young University as a new member.
The Big 12 intends on adding two teams because it needs them for a postseason game, which can bolster its chances of putting one of its teams in the College Playoff, where the national champion is determined. The league also wants to add more critical television markets. Iber believes that BYU, along with Houston, will be taken.
City Weekly reached out to the Big 12 for comment. “The Big 12 Conference is not commenting about this subject at this time,” Director of Communications Rob Carolla replied via email.
Sanders adds to his assessment that fans would not see beyond their colored glasses even if Utah’s program is better. He says that BYU fans would never critique their pre-1972 program, just as Utah fans wouldn’t critique theirs of pre-1904—these were the years before each respective program became dominant.
Chase Hansen speaks similarly. He is a safety at Utah, but grew up in Utah County—perhaps the hotbed of BYU fervor—and was raised a Cougar. A reporter asks him if his assumed perception that Utah’s program was developing better than BYU’s influenced his change of heart. He says that each side considers their program to be doing better.
Sitake, in the press conference, scoffs at national writer Stewart Mandel’s claim that BYU-Utah has become the “nastiest rivalry” after the Alabama-Auburn clash, perhaps the biggest sports rivalry in America.
“I’ve never seen it as nasty,” Sitake says. “I will never say anything bad about the University of Utah.”
Utah coach Kyle Whittingham says that he disagrees with Iber’s analysis of the 2016 version of the rivalry being the biggest in more than two decades, following with an every-game-matters statement. But one of his assistant coaches, as well as one of his players, have each suggested something different.
Wide receivers coach Guy Holliday’s last job was at BYU. He says that he wouldn’t lie that the Holy War is bigger than normal.
Punter Mitch Wishnowsky is from Australia. Asked about his being familiar with a great sports rivalry from the other side of the world, he says his teammates made sure he was.
“They have told me,” Wishnowsky says, grinning, “that you don’t lose to BYU.”