There are highlights among the dates on the coming football schedules for Utah and BYU, dates that promise all kinds of excitement and anticipation. Question is: Which weekend will be the absolute best?
It’s a question for the combination of both programs, both teams, both fan bases, centering on one weekend in which each of the two teams are engaged, when everyone will be most energized. There’s no real wrong answer, and there are different ways of looking at it.
Scattered throughout the entire season, with only a couple of exceptions, the Utes have intriguing matchups — on account of a Pac-12 slate that is as fascinating as it is unrelenting. The fact that Utah football has grown to the point where it has a good chance of winning on any of these dates, taken individually, against any of these opponents, making nearly all of their games fun to look forward to is a compliment to the program. The whole of it all, totaled together, the collective challenge faced, makes the Utes’ achievements, whatever they will be, that much more impressive.
BYU, on the other hand, is still trying — and failing — to duplicate that same kind of week-by-week measure. What the Cougars have done is commendable. There are some nice opponents in 2017. It’s an advancement from most of the independent schedules of the past and the Mountain West challenges, mixed as they were with a couple of biggies, of decades gone by. But it remains front-loaded, sadly dropping off after the season’s first half.
Which forces candidates for the best collective weekend to come from September and the initial two weeks of October. After Oct. 14th, BYU doesn’t hold up its end of the deal, facing in successive weeks: East Carolina, San Jose State, Fresno State, UNLV, UMass, and Hawaii. It starts the season with Portland State.
The only comparable, competitively-deprived spots on Utah’s schedule come in weeks one and three.
In their second game, the Cougars have an enormous challenge in facing LSU in Houston, but the Utes cancel that out with their season opener against North Dakota. On Sept. 16, when BYU plays host to Wisconsin, Utah messes that up with a game against San Jose State.
On Oct. 6, BYU plays host to Boise State at LaVell’s Place, while Utah goes against Stanford at Rice-Eccles on Oct. 7. That’s a stellar one-two punch for college football fans, red and blue, along the Wasatch. The Cougars’ annual match against the Broncos is transforming into a worthy regional rivalry. The Utes’ games against Stanford, in the years they’ve played, have been about as good as any games against any other conference opponent.
The following week is probably even better, although both games are on the road — Utah facing South division rival USC and BYU playing the SEC’s Mississippi State.
The meaning of the USC game is clear. Beyond the significant tradition of the Trojans, and all the pomp that comes with playing them, the matchup in this particular year makes it even more important. USC is thought to be one of the best teams in the country. These two teams were picked in the league’s preseason media poll to finish 1-2 in the South, and given that the Utes handled USC at Rice-Eccles last year, there will be ample motivation coming from both directions at the Coliseum.
BYU’s rematch with the Bulldogs, after that double-overtime win last season in Provo, is significant for a program still trying, after all these years, to elevate its standing, what with no power conference in which to compete. That adds so much more gravity to the Cougars’ early-season run against P5 teams.
Speaking of which, there’s only one other weekend to consider, at least in the combined sense …
Sept. 9th, when Utah travels to Provo to play BYU.
The game is now more important to the Cougars than the Utes, but not by much. It obviously does not mean a thing when it comes to Utah’s primary goal of winning the South and getting into the Pac-12 championship game.
On the other hand, what if the Utes don’t win a conference title? It’s an accomplishment that’s never happened and, so, if that’s the case again, what’s one more win or loss in league, whoever the opponent is?
On the other hand, what if the Utes were to run the table, or come close to doing that, as they have achieved in previous seasons, barreling toward some great end, gaining a high ranking, and then … stumbling and bumbling around in November? If that problem finally were put away, if Utah were to otherwise place itself in the lofty position of challenging for a playoff spot, but suffered a loss to BYU, that might be enough to cancel out the dream.
More than just that, the emotion of a century-old rivalry remains between schools that are a mere 50 miles apart, no matter what conference they do or don’t play in. It’s vogue smack talk for some Ute fans to say the BYU game doesn’t matter. Still, if the Utes lose to USC, they won’t have to hear about it from friends, neighbors and co-workers all year long. If they lose to the Cougars … well, they’d likely rather lay themselves down in the driveway and have the family Buick repeatedly driven over their kneecaps.
We already know how BYU fans feel about the game.
So what weekend of the coming season, in combo-pack form, is the biggest, the most anticipated?
Let’s ask it this way: What weekend, what opponent would fans of either team least want to lose or lose to?
The answer to the initial question: It’s Sept. 9.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Spence Checketts weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM. Twitter: @GordonMonson.