Here’s a question that before this season had never been asked:
Should Utah rest its stars against rival BYU?
Now, a lot of people are wondering.
Never before have the Utes entered the BYU game with the knowledge that they will be playing in the Pac-12 championship game the following Friday.
That means Utah, including travel, will have the shortest of weeks after BYU to get ready for a shot not just at a Pac-12 title but also at a spot in the Rose Bowl.
A shot at a spot.
That is a big, big deal. Bigger than local bragging rights, bigger than holding a win over your friends, family and neighbors, bigger than extending a seven-game win streak against the Cougars, bigger than the rivalry and the rivalry game.
Nobody has been a more vocal proponent of keeping the annual rivalry game alive than me. Utah and BYU have been playing each other for a century. Nothing should interrupt that. Not money. Not league affiliation. Not recent whims. Not superiority complexes. Not periodic series lopsidedness.
But in this particular season, Utah has its eyes on a more important prize. Qualifying for the league title game has been the No. 1 priority for the Utes all season long. Qualification isn’t enough. They aim to win it.
Should they, then, ease off the throttle a bit Saturday to preserve themselves for the following Friday?
Some might consider that blasphemous, preposterous, ridiculous, gutless.
But think about it: What if quarterback Jason Shelley were to get nicked up, after Tyler Huntley already is hurt? What then? Call on Drew Lisk? What if other key players — beyond Huntley and Zack Moss — were lost in a game that has no real impact on Utah’s achieving its top goal? That would be … unfortunate.
But the self-presumed, self-appointed wise man of college football, Nick Saban, has a different view of any such scenario.
The Alabama coach was asked last week not the exact question in the exact context, but a related one, about playing or resting his players against The Citadel, a much weaker opponent that had little influence on the Crimson Tide’s plans to win the SEC and go on to the College Football Playoff.
His response was unequivocal.
“I got asked about not playing [quarterback] Tua [Tagovailoa] in this game. Well, if we didn’t play Tua in this game, we’d be sending the message to every good player we have that they shouldn’t play in this game. Eventually, why should we even play? Why don’t we just forfeit so nobody gets hurt? Take a loss and just be done with it.
“Or is it an opportunity for everybody to improve and grow and challenge themselves to get better so we get out and execute better as a team and build a little momentum through the week and the game? So, all right, we play better in the next game. That’s what I believe.”
In other words, Utah, even in a subsequent abbreviated week, can use the rivalry game, and the run-up to it, as an accelerator toward what comes next, as a warmup and a propellant, even if, especially if, the Utes are favorites, which they are.
That idea could become a bit more problematic if the Cougars somehow rocket up to the occasion and bring some version of their A-game. Let’s not mess around with the truth here — the Utes are the better team, and it’s not close. But strange things happen in these games. Despite the fact that Utah has owned the series of late, many of the games have been extraordinarily tight.
Saturday’s version might be a blowout, but, with all the emotion of a century-old rivalry, it could get chippy, rough and difficult.
If it does, will that help or hurt the Utes six days later?
Only the football fates know.
This is a one-time, one-year question, considering the rivalry game, if it continues deep into the seasons ahead, likely won’t be played at the end of November, rather earlier in the season.
If we know Kyle Whittingham right, he has too much pride to sit anybody in this game, regardless of what his top priorities are. His priority this week is to win one game, this one. The only way he’ll rest his frontline guys is if his team is three touchdowns ahead in the fourth quarter. He’ll line up with Saban here.
But he’ll hold his breath, too. The talent supply fueling the formula the Utes have used to such great effect this season — next man up — has to have some limitations at some point. Now isn’t the finest moment for them to test its depths again.
Utah already has exorcised its November curse. While Saturday is no time to give it new life, ensuring a win by putting its best players on the field is the most expedient way to keep the thing conquered.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.