One by one, sometimes two by two and three by three, and it might as well have been 11 by 11, BYU’s players at their football media day mentioned — no, underscored — their season-opener against Utah on Aug. 29 at LaVell Edwards Stadium.

They addressed it head on, drop-kicking pretense aside, abandoning any and all disposition to attempt to be cool about it, to downplay it or ignore it or act as though it weren’t hugely important to them.

It is.

The Cougars absolutely swung a hammer on it, not once shying away from saying they want it in the worst way. The Utes want that game, too, and there are reasons they should want it every bit as much. More on that in a minute.

But BYU’s guys look to that game the way desperate men swim toward shore off a burning boat — thrashing and splashing and gasping, telling themselves that they refuse to slip under the waves. There’s been too much of the latter in the past, the way they figure it, what with the Utes having taken eight straight. BYU coach Kalani Sitake, a former Utah assistant, has never beaten the Utes, a significant hole in his resume, in his gut.

Foremost in the Cougars’ minds is last year’s, as one player called it, “debacle,” a game in which Utah trailed 27-7 late in the third quarter at Rice-Eccles, and still stormed back to hoist victory away from the crushed Cougars. “That never should have happened,” the player said. “We deserved that win.”

Well. As William Munny told Little Bill just before killing him in the film Unforgiven, “Deserve’s got nothing to do with it.”

Winning is winning. Losing is losing. Dying is dying.

BYU football has grown accustomed to and sick of and embarrassed by those last two.

In the days leading up to Aug. 29, it is using the Utes as motivation to spin the rivalry around, to turn their program around, and gain back their own self-respect.

But that seems to be pushing the Cougars even harder. They’re working, sweating, conditioning, aiming, studying, with the full intent of reversing their losing skid, knowing that even if the Utes are more talented than they are, the better team does not always win.

What Bill Munny said.

Some might think because BYU has no conference to play in, the rivalry game holds more meaning to it. From an emotional standpoint, that is true, but from a competitive one, it might not be. The argument can be made that a loss is just another loss to the Cougars. They will not go undefeated this coming season and everybody is pretty sure about that, so what’s the cost of one more defeat? It’s a matter of pride. And then, BYU can move on to the rest of one of its toughest schedules ever.

For the Utes, BYU is a nuisance as much as a motivation. It’s a wildly popular game among sports fans of the state, among neighbors, one that provides the biggest sports day (or night) of the year. But if the Utes were to stumble in Provo, they could simply learn their lessons and move on to the more pressing matters of the Pac-12. It can be claimed that the game against the Cougars is less important than their game against Oregon State, because Utah’s primary goal is to win the Pac-12 South and qualify for the Pac-12 championship game.

A loss to BYU would have no effect on that.

However, this game in this year is different.

The Utes have an opportunity to do something extraordinary this time around: They could be great.

They could not only win the Pac-12, if they stay healthy and don’t betray themselves, they could, possibly, win all of their games. This is a program that knows a thing or two about going undefeated. It’s done it twice in the past 15 years, granted, against lesser competition. The Utes have as favorable a league schedule as they could hope for, and they have talent stacked at nearly every turn.

Yeah, they want to win the Pac-12. And that would be large for them. But losing to their rival straight out the gate is not the bounce they want and need to achieve what could be within their grasp. Not predicting that they will fill that measure, that they will not taste defeat this year, just saying … it’s there. And they are disinclined to let that slip away before September even arrives.

Which is to say, the Utah-BYU game is big in both directions. Not just on account of the schools being 45 miles apart, having played each other for a century now. But, rather, because a whole lot is at stake, even if everything is not.

GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.