The best illustration of how the world has changed likely will come sometime Saturday night. Whenever the Utah Utes take the lead against BYU, the ESPN.com scoreboard will post an “Upset Alert.”
Whoa. How did this happen?
Entering the season, the question surrounding the Utes was not so much whether they would stand 4-0 after September, but how high they would be ranked in advance of USC’s coming to town. Instead, BYU is No. 25 in this week’s AP Poll and positioned for a big year, while the Utes are trying to avoid disaster.
That’s why this game has become very important to Utah — as critical as any rivalry contest in recent history, other than the 2004 and ’08 games that sent the unbeaten Utes to the Bowl Championship Series.
It matters to BYU, for all of the usual reasons. With no conference championship to play for, the rivalry becomes more of a signature opportunity for the Cougars. A victory would bring the BCS into view, although BYU still would have to beat Boise State, Notre Dame, Georgia Tech and everybody else.
Winning the game would help Utah, obviously, but the real issue here is what losing would mean. The Utes have lost to both Utah State and BYU only once in the past 24 seasons (1996). Besides the loss of in-state credibility, another defeat already would bring bowl eligibility into question, with the Utes then having to go 5-4 in the Pac-12 just to qualify.
If they want to take any momentum into their opening stretch of the league schedule, which includes three road games and USC’s visit, the Utes have to win Saturday. Even if the rivalry has lost some value as a nonconference game played in September, a season-saving element suddenly is in play at Rice-Eccles Stadium.
Unless the Utes want to perpetuate talk of a 1-6 start — and let’s face it, they’d be underdogs against any of their four subsequent opponents, as of today — they’d better beat BYU.
The Utes do have a few things going for them, starting with how poorly they played in that 27-20 overtime loss to USU. In a weird way, that’s comforting. Coach Kyle Whittingham’s teams never have played uninspired football two games in a row, so they’re bound to start better Saturday than they did in Logan.
There’s also something about the way his teammates respond to quarterback Jon Hays, regardless of whatever talent dropoff exists between the injured Jordan Wynn and Hays. And while Brian Blechen’s suspension and Eric Rowe’s injury have created a makeshift secondary, the Ute defense held a good USU offense to 13 points in regulation (not counting a blocked punt for a touchdown).
Issues with the offensive line may resolve themselves with some personnel shuffling and Hays’ scrambling ability.
If not, it is going to get interesting around here. Without naming names, Whittingham has been critical of line coach Dan Finn’s work. If the offense struggles again, a lot of questions will be asked about Whittingham’s choices of replacements for former offensive coordinator Norm Chow and line coach Tim Davis.
This group has all the makings of a great recruiting staff, but the actual coaching part is what matters here and now. Whittingham’s crew will have to outcoach the BYU staff to earn a win that once appeared to be as routine for Utah as beating Utah State.
As strange as it sounds, the Utes have to hope there’s another in-state upset. Otherwise, the biggest game around here in early October might be BYU vs. USU — the day after Utah vs. USC.