For openers? It’s Utah vs. BYU. Here’s why the rivals are doing it and what it means going forward.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes offensive lineman Lo Falemaka (69) and offensive lineman Jackson Barton (70) celebrate as the Utes stop the Cougars on 4th down wth just seconds left in the game, giving Utah the victory, in football action between the Brigham Young Cougars and the Utah Utes, at Rice-Eccles Stadium, Saturday, November 24, 2018.

Utah and BYU will open the football season against each other in the latest installment of a rivalry that has produced continual disagreement.

BYU says nothing like this ever happened. Utah contends the programs did this is in the beginning of the series. Regardless of whether the rivalry began in the spring of 1896 with Brigham Young Academy playing football (Utah's story) or in October 1922 with BYU playing Utah in its second game since launching the sport (the Cougars' version), this is new material for the modern era.

Almost no matter how it ends, the 2019 season will be remembered in this state for how it started, in Provo on a Thursday night in August.

For Utah’s players, the phenomenon of the rivalry as an opener “certainly gets their attention,” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said. BYU’s Kalani Sitake likes the do-over chance it gives his team after the way the 2018 regular season ended, with the Cougars losing a 20-point lead in a 35-27 defeat. “I am feeding off the players’ energy,” Sitake said. “We knew after last year’s game what a missed opportunity we had.”

With no other opponent in front of either team, everybody has been free to think about their rivals for eight months. Name a checkpoint during year – spring practice in March, BYU’s Media Day in June, Pac-12 Media Day in July, preseason camps in August – and the season opener has been a prime subject.


When • Thursday, 8:15 p.m.


Having BYU on the schedule “definitely made a lot of people amped up and ready to play,” said Utah senior safety Julian Blackmon. “And I think the biggest thing is having that mindset of why we’re working. … We’ve got to understand what we’re working for. The biggest thing is we’re playing BYU the first game, so just be prepared.”

BYU offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes said, “I think it certainly helps that the rivalry is the opener, because that game is more important than the others. I think any time you open with a big game, that is a positive, and it gets players focused and gives them motivation throughout the summer and fall camp. The magnitude of this game only heightens that.”

Mix in Utah’s opportunity to match the longest winning streak in the series of nine games (the schools share the record), and the buildup to this contest becomes justifiable.

The possibility of the teams' meeting in the opener has existed since 2011, when Utah moved to the Pac-12 and BYU became independent. Having the rivalry kick off the season was not a conscious decision, however. By the time this year's contract was signed in August 2015, Utah had booked Northern Illinois in Week 2 of 2019 and BYU had a deal with USC in Week 3. That left the opening weekend available. The teams also will meet on Labor Day Weekend in 2020 and '22; the contracted games in '21, '23 and '24 are in the second or third weeks of the schedule, as happened for most of the current decade.

Other in-state coaches who have experienced the Utah-BYU rivalry can only imagine preparing for the game as a season opener.

“Exciting. Awesome. There’s nothing like that game, if you’re playing in that rivalry,” said Weber State’s Jay Hill. “If you love football, you love that game. And to have it Week 1 and get it going a hundred miles an hour is awesome.”


Contracted football games between Utah and BYU:

2020 – BYU at Utah, Sept. 3, 4 or 5 (Week 1).

2021 – Utah at BYU, Sept. 11 (Week 2).

2022 – BYU at Utah, Sept. 3 (Week 1).

2023 – Utah at BYU, Sept. 16 (Week 3).

2024 – BYU at Utah, Sept. 7 (Week 2).

Utah State’s Gary Andersen said, “I’m sure that’s crazy. For that game to be the first game of the year, with that rivalry and everybody knows what it means, it’s something extra. … I’m sure the Utes are thinking about in the back of their minds every single day; I’m sure the Cougars are doing the same.”

Utah experienced something like this in 2013, although not on the level of the BYU rivalry. The Utes had lost to Utah State the previous year — that remains Utah’s only regular-season, nonconference defeat in the Pac-12 era — and went through August knowing they had another shot at the Aggies.

Utah responded with a 30-26 victory, after trailing 23-14.

That game predates any current players. So the anticipation reminds Ute receiver Britain Covey of his freshman season of 2015, when Jim Harbaugh launched his Michigan coaching tenure at Rice-Eccles Stadium. Preparing for BYU is unlike Utah's readying for a season-opening FCS opponent such as Southern Utah, North Dakota or Weber State, Covey acknowledged.

“Yeah, I think I'd be lying if I said it didn't make it feel any different,” he said. “It's a rivalry game and we recognize that. … Definitely, very similar to the buildup to Michigan. There is definitely an intensity that you can feel, especially as we start coming closer.”

The Cougars have had a long time to think about a game they let slip away last November, even after having routed Western Michigan in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl.

“That's what the last nine months have meant to me,” said BYU safety Austin Lee, a former Utah player. “I knew we had them in Game 1, and that I had to be ready for Game 1, and so does everyone else. We were frustrated, and we took that frustration out on Western Michigan, and that momentum has continued through the workouts we have been doing and spring ball and [player-run summer practices]. So we are very ready for it.”

And the Utes have heard what the Cougars are saying about how that game got away from them, thanks to sound bites of BYU's Media Day being played in Utah's weight room during summer conditioning sessions.

The talk will end Thursday night, when the game’s outcome will speak for itself.

Jay Drew contributed to this story.