Kragthorpe: Big-game convergence will define Utah, BYU
The second Saturday of the college football season serves up the signature games of a new era around here: Utah vs. USC and BYU vs. Texas.
Never mind that if another seismic shift occurs across the land, the Utes could find themselves facing Texas more often than they play USC.
For the moment, anyway, this convergence of contests will define Utah and BYU. When the polls are released Tuesday, they could frame this weekend as the first time since 1982 that the Utes and Cougars will meet ranked opponents on the same day.
Regardless, these two road games have created the biggest day in the state's football history. They represent everything about where Utah and BYU have planted themselves in the landscape. While tarnished to a degree by NCAA sanctions (USC) and a losing season (Texas), the opponents remain brand names in the sport. Iconic, even.
These games played at roughly the same time Saturday evening, 1,400 miles apart, in front of a combined 180,000 fans immediately will give us a gauge of the Utah and BYU programs.
USC sets the standard of the Pac-12 South, and Utah is the Trojans' opponent for the inaugural game of the expanded conference. Texas stands among college football's elite, and hosts the biggest road game of BYU's first independent season.
The Utes can establish themselves as prime contenders for the South title. Far more than what beating Mississippi did for them, the cachet of a win at Texas would elevate the Cougars' independent pursuit.
Conversely, a pair of convincing defeats would radically alter the way Utah and BYU are perceived in their new worlds. They would become afterthoughts, until proven otherwise. One of them would be doomed to a 1-2 start, since they meet the following week in Provo.
So for the Utes and Cougars, Saturday either will become a what-have-we-done situation or a landmark moment. This week is all about relevance, regionally and nationally.
The timing is interesting, in multiple ways. Texas' future is among the biggest stories in the country. If the Longhorns help create a Pac-16, the Big 12 will crumble. So will my argument about BYU's needing to join that league.
The irony is that if Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott last summer had succeeded in landing Texas and other Big 12 schools to create a Pac-16, Utah would have been left out.
Texas' decision now could affect BYU greatly. But that's not the football team's problem.
The Cougars have to figure out how to score more than seven offensive points, as they did at Ole Miss. Similarly, Utah cannot go the last 41 minutes of the game without producing a touchdown, as happened against Montana State.
Having said that, their opponents did not appear overwhelming Saturday. Texas led Rice only 13-9 in the third quarter before pulling away to a 34-9 win. USC started nicely against Minnesota before wobbling, then hanging on for a 19-17 victory.
So the beauty of Saturday's convergence is that Utah and BYU can earn pretty much full value for victories over big-name teams, even if the schools are not quite themselves these days. Then again, the last time I framed the opportunities for the Utes and Cougars this way, these were the results of Sept. 19, 2009: Oregon 31, Utah 24; Florida State 54, BYU 28.
The Ducks and Seminoles were not quite as vulnerable as they looked, obviously. The Trojans and Longhorns are up next. How good are Utah and BYU? Do they belong here? Can they thrive at this level, or are they in over their heads?
As they say in Texas, we're fixin' to find out.
Once in a blue (and red) moon
BYU and Utah rarely have played high-profile football opponents on the same day, as will happen Saturday. Other such convergences:
Sept. 11, 1982 No. 6 Georgia 17, BYU 14
No. 15 Arizona State 23, Utah 10
Sept. 21, 1991 No. 12 Penn State 33, BYU 7
Utah 24, Oregon 17
Sept. 21, 2002 Georgia Tech 28, BYU 19
No. 14 Michigan 10, Utah 7
Sept. 6, 2003 No. 4 USC 35, BYU 18
Texas A&M 28, Utah 26
Sept. 19, 2009 Florida State 54, BYU 28
Oregon 31, Utah 24