It’s the local story of the season: strength of schedule.
On Utah’s end, it’s brutal. On BYU’s, it’s benign.
Everything that happens from now until December for both of those programs must be seen in that light. The days of the win-loss record revealing the whole deal, without context, are long gone. If the Cougars were to end up with a couple or more wins than the Utes, what would that mean, what would that prove?
Not a lot.
Here’s what it wouldn’t mean, wouldn’t prove: that BYU is better than Utah.
That’s yesterday’s clouded thinking. Today most unbiased observers can differentiate between the degrees of difficulty here. It’s like one marathoner running up Parley’s Canyon and another running down it, and then drawing conclusions by comparing just the times.
It doesn’t mean BYU can’t be better than Utah this season, it just means that isolating the records won’t be a true measure. It never has been, and grasping that, after all the years of sticking up for the little guys around here, is bitter medicine.
BYU has UConn, Texas, Houston, Virginia, Utah State, Central Florida, Nevada, Boise State, Middle Tennessee, UNLV, Savannah State and Cal.
Utah has Idaho State, Fresno State, Michigan, Washington State, UCLA, Oregon State, USC, Arizona State, Oregon, Stanford, Arizona and Colorado.
The disparity is obvious. Still, it’s not any kind of indictment on BYU’s program. The independent Cougars are trying to put in place tough schedules because they know that’s the only way they really can find legitimacy. This is one of those campaigns that falls short. They will continue to attempt to bulk up future schedules — because they must. The Utes’ run is an absolute grinder. They will face five preseason Top 25 picks and run through a Pac-12 schedule that forces them, week by week, to bring their best. Even when they do bring their best, there will be losses. Losses in which there isn’t much shame. No excuse there. They joined the Pac-12. They fly their Pac-12 flags and display their Pac-12 stickers, and set themselves up for Pac-12 money, but they also will sport their Pac-12 defeats.
Senior wide receiver Dres Anderson spoke for all the Ute players when he said they wouldn’t want their climb to be any less arduous: “I love the schedule, playing these Pac-12 teams and mostly tough nonconference games. We want to play against the best. That’s the only way you know how good you are. That’s the only way you get better.”
Utah defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake said the row is difficult, but one of the advantages of playing that row is the players pretty much know what they’re up against.
“You don’t have to pump the guys up to get ready to play,” he said. “They’re excited for these games. They’re in the spotlight. Our guys are motivated to roll right from the beginning. We’d all rather have it like that, to be tested.”
It’s a benefit the Cougars only have here and there.
Quality opponents are on the sked, just not in regular order, where they have no breaks. For example, at another glance, BYU ends the season with four games — against Middle Tennessee, UNLV, Savannah State and Cal — that are nobody’s idea of a gauntlet.
The extremes shade the season. If BYU wins 10 or 11 games, if Taysom Hill runs for a thousand yards and passes for 3,500, a bit of a disclaimer will have to accompany the achievements. If Utah has another losing season … well, it doesn’t mean the team itself wasn’t better than it was a year ago.
In the current environment, at least for Utah, none of that matters. After winning a total of just five league games and 10 games overall the past two seasons, that program has to win now. Otherwise, there will be consequences. The coaches are well aware.
For BYU, it has to beat a good number, if not all, of the strong teams on the schedule because beating the lesser ones doesn’t enhance the Cougars much. Bronco Mendenhall is safe, but BYU’s reputation, certainly among the Power 5 leagues and national committees that determine postseason opportunities, is always at stake.
As it reaches for inclusion in top-level college football, the best way BYU can find a place at the table is by beating the programs that see themselves as superior to the Cougars.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Spence Checketts weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM/1280 and 960 AM The Zone.