Kragthorpe: The 2018 football season comes with a twist as Utah vs. BYU game returns to November date

Kyle Whittingham and Kalani Sitake like the temporary return to tradition.<br>

Sandy • The weather was unseasonably cool Monday, when Utah’s Kyle Whittingham and BYU’s Kalani Sitake appeared at Hidden Valley Country Club during a National Kidney Foundation event that annually brings the football coaches together.

It might be considerably colder when the friends and former co-workers meet for business purposes.

Utah and BYU will play in the final game of the regular season for the first time since 2010, when the rivals completed their Mountain West tenures and Utah’s Pac-12 schedule basically dictated that nonconference games be played in the first three weeks.

Coaches usually devote part of the summer to studying their first three opponents, so the staffs of Whittingham and Sitake were conscious of the other program the last two years. Not so in 2018, when the rivalry game remains five months away. The coaches have played golf in past kidney foundation events, but not Monday, because of youth camps and Sitake’s disclaimer, coming off a 4-9 season: “I don’t think this is the year everybody wants to see my golf game improve.”

The coaches did play in Provo recently and hope to get together informally later in the summer. “That’s what mentors are for,” said Sitake, a Whittingham assistant for 10 years.

And then their teams will compete Nov. 24 at Rice-Eccles Stadium. The Pac-12 gives USC and Stanford exceptions for their annual series with Notre Dame, leaving 11 teams available for conference games Thanksgiving weekend. As an independent, BYU’s scheduling flexibility made this November’s date work with Utah; the Cougars will play USC and Stanford in November in coming years.

The new (old) schedule slot will “feel more familiar,” Sitake said. “I kind of like it at the end, where you can just kind of empty the tank… It just seems like that’s what should happen in rivalry games.”

Whittingham said, “It’s in the traditional spot, which people were used to for years and years. It’ll have more of the feel it used to have, the buildup… for the entire season.”

This is only a temporary return to November, with the unprecedented twist that the Utes hope they’re playing another game six days later.

The Utes are among the Pac-12 South’s favorites in 2018. So picture them winning the division title Nov. 17 at Colorado, knowing they will face Washington in the conference championship game 13 days later — with the rivalry game in the middle.

Let me stop your mind from wandering, right here and now. Any suggestion that the Utes would not have maximum motivation against BYU is just silly. Even aside from wanting to extend a seven-game winning streak in the rivalry, Utah would have a lot at stake. Almost certainly, a Pac-12 South title would position the Utes to play in a New Year’s Six bowl game or even the College Football Playoff.

Those possibilities could crumble if Utah loses to BYU and falls again in the Pac-12 championship game, so there absolutely would be full incentive to beat the Cougars. It has crossed Whittingham’s mind that having a bye prior to the title game would be preferable, as happened with USC last season, but he said, “We just take ‘em as they unfold.”

And the Utes actually have to win the South, before any other considerations come into play.

The positioning of nonconference rivalry games after Thanksgiving is not uncommon among Power Five schools. The Southeastern and Atlantic Coast Conferences are paired in four games that weekend: Florida vs. Florida State, Georgia vs. Georgia Tech, Kentucky vs. Louisville and South Carolina vs. Clemson. Multiple schools from that list have decent chances of appearing in conference championship games the following week. So does USC, meeting Notre Dame. Stanford faced the Fighting Irish last November in that circumstance.

I do look forward to 2019 and 2020, when Utah and BYU will meet in the season openers. They’re scheduled to play in the second game of ’21, then again in the opener in ’22.

“That way, there’ll be a lot of anticipation,” said former Ute coach Ron McBride, who experienced Louisville vs. Kentucky in season openers as a UK assistant. “I thought that was a lot of fun, and then you have the game behind you, so you don’t have to worry about it.”

For the sake of history, though, this November’s matchup will be good stuff.