What’s at stake when Utah, BYU meet Thursday in Provo? The loser, especially, will feel the effects.

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Utah Utes head coach Kyle Whittingham high-fives fans after the win as BYU hosts Utah, NCAA football in Provo, Saturday, September 9, 2017.

Preparing for his 25th game vs. BYU as a Utah football staff member, having been immersed in the rivalry for three-fourths of his life as a coach’s son, player and coach on one side or the other, Kyle Whittingham was asked this week if he enjoys it.

Whittingham responded with an unconvincing smile and his own question: “Enjoy it?”

And then he said, “It's competitive. It's intense. … It's still every bit as gratifying, I guess you could say, as always.”

Whittingham keeps winning in this decade, although rarely without a lot of agonizing on the sideline. With a ninth straight victory, he would match the series-record runs of two legendary coaches: Utah's Ike Armstrong (1929-37) and BYU's LaVell Edwards (1979-87).

In their Pac-12 era, the Utes have a growing advantage in personnel over BYU, as judged by their 23 picks in the last seven NFL drafts to BYU’s six selections. Yet the scoreboard hardly ever reflects that imbalance. So is this the year when the Cougars break through? Are the Utes due to dominate their rivals? Or will Thursday night’s game at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo be just another case of the Utes winning, while making it more difficult than necessary?

[Read more: What to watch for when Utah, BYU meet Thursday night]

Seven of Utah’s eight wins over BYU in this decade have comes by eight points or fewer. This rivalry installment comes in a new scheduling slot that makes it mysterious, with the teams lacking any evidence of what they’ll actually look like in 2019.

And the loser will face major emotional challenges, because of what’s ahead, in completely different ways. Utah would have three weeks to live with the defeat before being able to do anything meaningful in response, considering the Utes’ next two opponents are Northern Illinois and Idaho State. BYU would have to regroup quickly, with a trip to Tennessee next week.

Mix in Utah’s No. 14 ranking, the program’s highest-ever distinction in August, and the risk/reward nature of this game is intensified – probably more than in most years when the teams played in late November as conference rivals.

The game's season-opening place on the calendar “has done its purpose,” said BYU coach Kalani Sitake, “giving a sense of urgency to our players.”

So has the Cougars’ volume of losses to Utah. Whittingham keeps track of this stuff; he flashed seven fingers as he walked toward the visitors’ locker room after a 2017 victory. Yet something about eight wins has exponentially increased the discussion of the streak this year, especially from BYU’s end.

The Cougars may be 0-8 vs. Utah in this decade (the teams didn’t meet in 2014), but a victory Thursday seemingly would make them feel as if they’d won the best-of-nine series.

The eight-month buildup to this season opener has something to do with its impact. So does the history of the teams going 20-20 against each other in the last 40 games and 30-30 in the last 60 meetings. Then there are the memories of last November, when Utah rallied from 20 points behind in the second half of a 35-27 win.

“How that game went down last year was crazy; it does nothing but add fuel to the fire on both sides,” said Utah State coach Gary Andersen, a Ute assistant in 2018.

“With what happened last year, it was a devastating loss,” said Cougar linebacker Zayne Anderson. “So it's been in the back of our minds all offseason.”

And the Utes have heard enough about what BYU views as a missed opportunity. They’re motivated to display the in-game dominance they’ve lacked over BYU, even as their victories have piled up.

Utah's best teams of this century asserted themselves in rivalry games that were close for a while, before the Utes surged to wins of 52-21 (2004) and 48-24 ('08). Those routs came at the end of the regular season, in Mountain West play, when Utah was unbeaten and highly ranked.

The 2019 Utes are expected to become another great team. But nobody can be sure of that, as of August. The first clues, regarding Thursday's outcome and how Utah's season evolves, will come up front against BYU's defense. Of the Utes' five offensive line starters, left tackle Darrin Paulo is the only one who has started more than 13 games.

With questions to be answered about his group, Utah line coach Jim Harding said, “There's always a nervous energy for that first game, especially.”

This season, more than ever.


At LaVell Edwards Stadium, Provo

Kickoff: 8:15 p.m. Thursday.


Radio: ESPN 700; KSL-AM 1160.

Series history: Utah leads, 58-31-4.

Last meeting: Utah 35, BYU 27 (2018).

About the Utes: Utah has its won its last 12 season openers since a 2007 loss at Oregon State, although the Utes have faced Big Sky Conference teams in seven of those games. Utah’s most recent season-opening road game was a 25-23 win at Michigan in 2008. … The Utes are 23-1 in regular-season nonconference games since joining the Pac-12, losing only to Utah State in 2012. … Offensive guard Braeden Daniels and linebacker Devin Lloyd will make their first career starts; guard Paul Toala, receiver Bryan Thompson and safety Terrell Burgess have started one game.

About the Cougars: BYU has won nine of its last 10 season openers, including wins over Power Five schools Washington, Mississippi, Washington State, Nebraska and Arizona (twice). The Cougars lost a fourth-quarter lead in a 2013 defeat at Virginia. … BYU’s three wins in the last 17 meetings with Utah came via a last-play touchdown (2006), a fourth-and-18 conversion (‘07) and an overtime TD (’09). … BYU coach Kalani Sitake and Utah offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig worked together on the Ute staff in 2005-08.