Kragthorpe: Utes poised for takeover amid BYU's downturn
Six years later, Kyle Whittingham's dilemma seems almost silly.
BYU is 2-5, residing near the bottom nationally in major statistical categories and battling just to qualify for a bowl game.
Utah is 6-0, ranked No. 9 and contending for a second Bowl Championship Series bid in three seasons.
Where would you rather be coaching?
Whittingham chose Utah over BYU in December 2004 after having the unheard-of opportunity to pick between the head coaching position at rival schools, then agonizing for days before disregarding the advice of his three younger brothers, who had followed him as BYU players.
They commend him now for looking beyond the immediate challenge of following Urban Meyer at Utah, as opposed to comfortably succeeding Gary Crowton at BYU. As an 11-year assistant, Whittingham recognized what the Utes could permanently become.
With each program going in a different direction next season, Utah is far better suited for what's ahead. The Utes are loaded with talented players that "you'd like to have on your team," said Colorado State coach Steve Fairchild.
BYU? Some will dismiss the Cougars' downturn as temporary. To me, this year's divergence of these teams is a clear sign that Utah is overtaking BYU in this state, in ways that will become evident on signing days in February and in rivalry games in September in the years to come.
Sure, there's some danger of overreacting to a half-season of football. As their schools exit the Mountain West Conference, BYU's Bronco Mendenhall is sure to finish with a better record than Whittingham in league play for their six years of competition. In a sense, besides creating an appreciation of Utah's consistency, BYU's troubles this season serve as a tribute to what Mendenhall accomplished until now.
We'll never know if Whittingham would have done better or worse as BYU's coach.
Yet there's no doubting that Whittingham is fulfilling the promise of a Utah program that his late father, Fred, once described as "a gold mine," and that Mendenhall is discovering what Whittingham realized: Once the initial rebuilding of BYU's program was done and the standards became high again in Provo, restoring and maintaining Utah's level of performance would be more reasonable.
Whatever built-in recruiting advantages BYU's church affiliation affords are offset by a restricted pool of players and missionary turnover that can leave holes at certain positions. Mix in a front-loaded schedule, and an occasional season like 2010 seems inevitable.
That's not to completely gloss over BYU's struggles or diminish Whittingham's performance in an easier job, working in a program made more attractive by the school's new conference affiliation.
Mendenhall either was publicly too optimistic going into this season or he overestimated his staff's ability to coach and develop players to sustain success. Whittingham and his staff have recruited brilliantly, stocking Utah's program with personnel the NFL admires and positioning the Utes to become capable of winning their division of the Pac-12 next season. By comparison, BYU is moving into an unknown, undefined world of football independence with even more questions about the Cougars' chances to distinguish themselves. With the firing of defensive coordinator Jaime Hill and the suspension of receiver O'Neill Chambers, issues arise about BYU's ability to recruit and retain African-American players and coaches.
The outlook for each school could change slightly by late November, simply as a result of Utah's scheduling upgrade and BYU's reduced degree of difficulty in the second half of the season. But if you had to pick a program to attach yourself to for the next four or five years, Utah would be the choice, wouldn't it?
The Utes may not travel as many miles as the independent Cougars will in the coming seasons, but they're the ones going places.
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Bronco vs. Kyle
BYU's Bronco Mendenhall and Utah's Kyle Whittingham, since their first seasons in '05:
51-20 Overall 53-17
35-8 Conference 31-12
3-2 Bowl games 5-0
3-2 Against each other 2-3
*The NCAA credits Whittingham with a 54th win, as co-coach of the 2005 Fiesta Bowl.