Regardless of whatever degree of importance anyone assigns to the Utah-BYU football rivalry in its current state, the temporary end of the series will offer one last gift to September’s winner in Provo: a bid to the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl.
That’s my forecast for 2013, when the Cougars are ticketed to play in San Francisco if they’re bowl-eligible, meeting a Pac-12 opponent. If Utah is available, it probably will mean BYU failed to qualify. If BYU’s in, Utah’s likely out.
In other words, the rivalry game’s loser will have a tough time reaching a 6-6 record.
Collectively, the Utes and Cougars — and Utah State, which hosts BYU and some recognizable opponents in the Mountain West — will play the most attractive home schedule in the history of college football in this state. Winning those games against the likes of Stanford and UCLA (Utah) and Texas and Boise State (BYU) is another issue entirely.
Utah and BYU can only hope quarterbacking stability gives them a better chance for consistency in 2013, in the wake of a coincidentally crazy season at that position. Whether next year’s starters are Utah’s Travis Wilson and BYU’s Taysom Hill or one or both of them is overtaken by a freshman, more continuity certainly would help.
Amazingly, each program went through three starting QBs this season. The six of them produced a combined 13 victories, while USU’s Chuckie Keeton posted 11 wins himself. BYU must be the only team that ever had three quarterbacks win his first two starts in a season — which apparently means the Cougars should have played Jason Munns against Oregon State and Notre Dame.
When the NFL draft comes in April, any excitement among fans about having defensive linemen from Utah and BYU taken in the first round will be tempered by the realization that their teams probably should have won more games with them.
Utah loses Star Lotulelei, who’s potentially the No. 1 overall pick. The Utes went 22-2 in the two years before quarterback Alex Smith was drafted No. 1 in 2005; they were 13-12 the last two seasons with Lotulelei anchoring their defense.
If it’s comforting that the Utes were blown out only once in 2012 (a 37-7 loss at Arizona State), their two-year record in Pac-12 play is sobering. The Utes have gone 7-11 in the league, including 3-7 against South Division rivals and 4-5 at home. Until they actually win more than four of their nine conference games in any season, it’s unreasonable to expect such performance from them. So that means the Utes would need at least two wins against Weber State, Utah State and BYU to become bowl-eligible.
BYU is similarly positioned. The Cougars competed favorably in every game this season, including a 17-14 loss at national finalist Notre Dame. But next year’s schedule is much tougher. If the Cougars lose to Utah for a ninth time in 12 years, the climb to the six-win level will become challenging.
The Cougars’ biggest issues of the immediate future were standing on the Poinsettia Bowl podium Thursday, receiving MVP awards. If linebacker Kyle Van Noy and receiver Cody Hoffman stay in school, BYU’s outlook brightens considerably. Those two would be worth about one victory apiece.
The country’s No. 3-ranked defense will take some hits, regardless. Who would have imagined going into this season that Ziggy Ansah would emerge as a first-round prospect?
Thanks to Keeton and eight teammates who received some level of All-Western Athletic Conference recognition, Utah State will have the most returning talent. The biggest unknown is how coach Matt Wells will perform as Gary Andersen’s successor, and the Mountain West schedule rotation is another variable.
Even so, USU should earn one of the conference’s bowl bids in 2013. The question is which of the state’s other schools also will be playing in December. We should find out in September.