Provo • With no conference title to play for since they went independent in football prior to the 2011 season, and that puzzling 19-16 loss to Virginia taking away any hope of making a BCS run this year, the BYU Cougars have set their sights on a state championship.
It begins on Saturday, when the 1-1 Cougars play host to 2-1 Utah at LaVell Edwards Stadium. It will continue on Oct. 4 when BYU travels to Logan to face sizzling Utah State (2-1).
"I think the state championship is really important, being independent, especially," BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall said Monday. "Our players have made that something that they value, and I support that and would love to help them do that. And it would make sense for any of the teams in the state, that if you win the state, that is a nice springboard into national prominence, because there is good football in this state."
Of course, Saturday's rivalry game will be the last one until 2016, because BYU and Utah are not scheduled to play each other in 2014 and 2015. Mendenhall said Monday the series should go on uninterrupted. Utah pretty much put it on a two-year hiatus, saying that playing 11 difficult games a year (nine in the Pac-12) was too taxing on a program trying to make its mark in a new league.
"I think you schedule around the [rivalry] game," Mendenhall said. "I mean, that goes in first, and every other game goes in after. â¦ I am opposed to stopping it for any reason. I think it is one of the reasons college football is such a cool thing."
That said, Mendenhall said he won't miss the game as much as his players will. Five years ago, the coach talked about the nastiness of the rivalry getting out of hand and questioned its viability, but is now singing a different tune.
"Part of the cool thing about playing college football is to be a part of rivalry weekend, and we don't have the rivalry weekend anymore, but we still have the game," he said. "I think a lot of the memories the players have from college have to deal with big games. And this is a big game. And it is a lot of fun. So I feel badly that they will miss out on it."
Mendenhall grew up in Salt Lake City and then Alpine, but doesn't remember many of the rivalry games although his older brother, Mat Mendenhall, played for the Cougars from 1975-79. His father, Paul, played for BYU from 1953-54.
"I don't remember [much], other than my dad getting so worked up about it," Bronco Mendenhall said.
"He's a Cougar Club loyal, faithful fan. He kept talking about how big of a game it was. I was just a kid coming to watch my brother play. So I didn't really grasp what it was all about."
Utah coach Kyle Whittingham is 5-3 head-to-head against Mendenhall, having won the last three matchups after Mendenhall took an early 3-2 lead in the rivalry within the rivalry. However, Mendenhall (75-30) has inched ahead in overall winning percentage, having won 71.4 percent of his games. Whittingham (73-33) has won 68.9 percent of his games, while playing a more difficult schedule the past two years.
Food for thought: Will Saturday's game mark the last time Mendenhall and Whittingham coach against each other?