One of the more clever responses to the University of Utah’s announcement last week about the planned seating capacity (51,444) of the expanded Rice-Eccles Stadium came from a fan who had hoped the increased number would send a message to the Utes' in-state football rival.
His suggested size: 54,210. Say that number as 54 to 10, and it evokes the score of the Utes' 2011 pounding of BYU in Provo.
That game remains memorable to both schools, partly because its one-sided outcome has become rarer as the years have gone along. The Utes keep winning; that part hasn’t changed. Even so, Utah’s seven-game winning streak, which began in 2010, is distinguished in the rivalry’s history as an unusual case of one school’s reign amid close games.
Saturday night’s meeting at Rice-Eccles Stadium will present a new dynamic in the rivalry, with Utah already ticketed to the Pac-12 championship game at Santa Clara, Calif. Utah coach Kyle Whittingham’s mantra is to treat every game the same way, so he dismissed any suggestion of holding out key players against BYU for the sake of next week’s preparation. That mentality, though, would keep the Utes from ever saying what BYU’s Micah Simon said about the rivalry contest being “the most important game of the season, to us.”
With a victory Saturday at home and next August in Provo, the Utes can match the rivalry’s longest run for either school. The current decade marks the seventh time since the rivalry began in 1922 that one team or the other has won at least six games in a row. Only once before, in the 1950s, when the Utes won seven straight, has any streak included more than two games decided by seven points or fewer. In other words, the dominant team usually has dominated.
Yet of the Utes' seven wins starting in 2010, six have come by seven points or fewer. Trailing 19-13, the Cougars even had the ball in the last minute of last season’s game in Provo, although their final drive went nowhere.
Football rivalry games of this decade:
2010 – Utah 17, BYU 16
2011 – Utah 54, BYU 10
2012 – Utah 24, BYU 21.
2013 – Utah 20, BYU 13.
2015 – Utah 35, BYU 28*.
2016 – Utah 20, BYU 19.
2017 – Utah 19, BYU 13.
* – Las Vegas Bowl.
A study of Utah-BYU in comparison to 10 other nonconference series played annually around the country shows the Utes have ruled the Cougars like no other school has done to its rival in this decade. But the teams have played far more games decided by a touchdown or less than in any such series, even though other rivalries have gone back and forth. Only in the Iowa-Iowa State series have more than half the margins been seven points or fewer.
In the case of Florida State's 7-1 reign over Florida, just one of the Seminoles' wins came by fewer than 16 points. Clemson and South Carolina stand 4-4 going into this weekend; only once has the loser stayed within a touchdown.
Utah-BYU is different, for some reason.
“It’s really competitive,” said BYU coach Kalani Sitake, a former Utah defensive coordinator. His explanation? “There’s a lot of people that really care about it,” Sitake said. “We definitely do.”
Whittingham guesses his team gets BYU’s “best shot” each time, but he’s not worried about degrees of domination on the scoreboard. As he said Monday, “Whether you win by one or 40, it really makes no difference.”
Why have the Utah-BYU games been so close, though? That’s partly answered by the oddsmakers' point spreads. In this decade, Utah’s being favored by eight points in 2010 — the most recent November matchup and the last time they met as Mountain West members — was the biggest spread. So the games were supposed to be close, and they played out that way. The 2010 contest ended in a 17-16 Ute victory, thanks to a blocked field goal on the final play. Saturday’s line, initially favoring Utah by 13½ points, is easily the biggest spread in the rivalry since 2004, when Utah’s unbeaten team was favored by 18 points and won 52-21.
It’s also true that the Utes have missed some opportunities for more comfortable wins lately. Utah settled for four field goals last season. The Utes also had a 24-7 lead in 2012 before winning 24-21 (as BYU’s tying field goal attempt hit the upright) and famously were ahead 35-0 after the first quarter of the 2015 Las Vegas Bowl before holding on for a 35-28 victory.
Generally, each program’s season has matched the other’s in this decade, also contributing to competitive contests. The 2013 game may have offered the Cougars their best shot at Utah during this streak. BYU, featuring quarterback Taysom Hill and running back Jamaal Williams, was favored by six points in Provo over a Ute team that would fail to make a bowl game. Utah quarterback Travis Wilson played one of the best games of his career and the Utes preserved a 20-13 win with a late interception.
Both teams were good in 2015 and ’16, then dropped off. BYU turned out to be historically bad in 2017, while Utah went only 3-6 in Pac-12 play. In any case, the Utes beat the Cougars as usual in September. Whittingham held up seven fingers as he walked toward the visiting locker room that night, symbolizing Utah’s longest winning streak in the rivalry since the 1950s.