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Utah-BYU: Riley a Ute? Star a Coug? It could have been
College football » Both teams have players who almost went to rival school.
First Published Sep 13 2012 02:18 pm • Last Updated Dec 25 2012 11:32 pm

He had no reason to expect to start this game. The quarterback applied eye black to his cheeks and pulled his red jersey over the abs to which a Twitter account is dedicated. Then Riley Nelson flipped back his shoulder-length hair, and pulled on his helmet.

He looked in the mirror.

At a glance

BYU at Utah

Saturday, 8 p.m.

TV » ESPN2

Coulda, woulda, shoulda?

Utah and BYU’s roster are populated by players who chose one school over the other. A few of the most notable:

Could’ve been Utes

QB Riley Nelson

OL Ryker Mathews

DB Joe Sampson

OL Braden Hansen

Could’ve been Cougars

DL Star Lotulelei

DL Dave Kruger

RB Harvey Langi (serving mission)

LB/DL Trevor Reilly

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"A Utah man am I," he said, as the fight song slipped under the locker room door.

When Nelson and the Utes ran onto the field, girls bounced in midriff-baring No. 13 Utah jerseys.

Nelson stared across the field until he picked out No. 92 in BYU white, stretching on the other side. Nelson fantasized about going up against Star Lotulelei, who smiled back. The nose tackle loved players with images bigger than their stature. But no reputation could outmuscle Lotulelei.

On the first play of the game, Nelson prepared for a bootleg pass that, if executed, would find DeVonte Christopher on the right edge. Lotulelei heaved and pushed Utah center Tevita Stevens aside. The athletic behemoth drove his helmet into Nelson’s torso.

One play into the 94th Holy War, Rice-Eccles Stadium went silent and Twitter went crazy.

"Ow," @RileysAbs said.

As any fan reading this — surely seething by now — will tell you, Riley Nelson certainly does not play for the Utes (why, the very thought!) and Star Lotulelei would sooner play naked than in a BYU uniform.


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But this is not something that merely could have happened. As it has for BYU and Utah players for generations, the two most decorated and discussed players in the game came close earlier in their careers to playing for the enemy.

Before he transferred to BYU, Nelson originally signed with Utah State after choosing the Aggies over Utah on TV in February 2006.

Lotulelei signed with BYU out of high school, but did not qualify academically. He spent two years at Snow College and signed with Utah, where he became an All-American and Morris Trophy winner.

Both rosters are full of players like this, enough that you could almost field an entire team of them.

And it probably wouldn’t be too bad.

Onetime Utah recruit Ryker Mathews has proven to be a good blocker for Nelson at BYU. Just imagine if Utes D-lineman Dave Kruger was alongside him on the offensive line, which is where he feared BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall would eventually stick him if he went to school in Provo.

"To be honest," Kruger said. "I can’t imagine myself playing at BYU."

But what is a rivalry good for if not imagination?

The butterfly effect is the element of the chaos theory that dictates that any small change has a profound impact elsewhere. Classically, a butterfly flapping its wings may form a hurricane elsewhere in the world.

Nelson going to Utah and Lotulelei going to BYU could have impacted the world beyond recognition. It’s possible nothing would be the same as today.

BYU might be in the Big XII, scheduling Michigan and refusing games against Utah as the Utes slogged along in the dying Mountain West Conference.

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