Utes: Rivalry week brings out the best - and worst - of what sport is about
It's here. The Utah-BYU week, or BYU-Utah week, depending on your allegiance. It's the week when Utah fans don't dare wear a shade of blue and BYU fans won't dare wear even a dark orange, lest they be mistaken for traitors.
It's the week when the "U" above the University of Utah and the "Y" above Brigham Young University become the target of pranks, such as when members of the Utah baseball team painted the "Y" red in 2004.
It's a week when religious ties mix with sport, family members are pitted against one another based on their alma maters and office chatter turns into a weeklong debate of which team is best.
In the words of Utah fan Newel White, "It's intense, it's fierce, it's unforgiving to the loser and it makes sensible people highly irrational - isn't that what really matters in a rivalry?"
Both teams enter on seven-game winning streaks. BYU, which has won a Mountain West Conference record 14 straight league games, clinched at least a share of the conference title Saturday with a 35-10 win over Wyoming. A win over the Utes would give the Cougars the title outright, their second in as many years. A Utah win would keep the Utes' hopes of earning at least a share of the title alive. For that scenario to happen, San Diego State would have to beat the Cougars on Dec. 1.
"It's huge, obviously," Utah quarterback Brian Johnson said. "They've won 14 or 15 straight conference games and that's a tribute to those guys and we're playing well at the same time. I don't think you can ask more from an in-state rivalry."
Not only will fans of the teams be watching closely, so, too, will be bowl directors from San Diego's Poinsettia Bowl and the Las Vegas Bowl. Right now, the Utes are penciled in as Navy's opponent for the Dec. 20 Poinsettia Bowl, but if the Utes beat the Cougars, it would be hard for the Las Vegas Bowl to pick BYU over the Utes even if the Cougars go on to win the conference title outright, according to Las Vegas Bowl director Tina Kunzer-Murphy.
"Everybody thinks it's a foregone conclusion that BYU is coming here, but that isn't the case," she said. "Utah is playing really good football. We're going to watch and wait until after Thanksgiving to make the decision."
History is on BYU's side for Vegas and very much against the Utes. Utah didn't travel well to Las Vegas for its Dec. 25, 2001, win over USC, although official attendance was announced at 30,894. More recently, Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said during Utah's festivities at the 2005 Emerald Bowl that "the best place to see Las Vegas is in the rear-view mirror," a comment Kunzer-Murphy remembers clearly.
"I don't forget that," she said. "Whoever we invite, we want to know they want to be here and BYU has done that in the past."
While school and bowl officials can hash out post-season berths and work on their political correctness, fans on both sides can spend the week wondering if Saturday's game can top the recent meetings in drama.
In 2005 Brett Ratliff got his first start at quarterback filling in for Johnson, who suffered a knee injury the week before, and led the Utes to a 41-34 overtime win. Last year BYU quarterback John Beck ran from one sideline to another until he saw Jonny Harline open and threw an 11-yard pass to him as time expired to give the Cougars a 33-31 win.
Both teams are trying to downplay the importance of Saturday's game and the anticipation of another wild contest. BYU linebacker Bryan Kehl acknowledged the rivalry, but said "it's just another football game, really," while Whittingham countered with his own cliche that the result "still counts as just one in the 'W' column."
Fans and anyone else who has been a part of the game to any extent won't buy into the cliches. We all know this one is special; it extends past the usual reaches of sports and is a part of Utah's culture.
"Every Ute and Cougar fan has close friends that are fans of the opposite team," Ute fan Mark Thomas said. "That means you can't escape the outcome of the rivalry at work, home or even at church. So when you win, you get to rub it in no matter where you go. When you lose, it's better to stay at home in bed!"