The “in-state game” is still a rivalry.
At least that’s how one of the men responsible for scheduling it sees it.
“It’s our rival,” Utah athletics director Mark Harlan said this week. “That rivalry is great for college football.”
The game on the schedule Saturday night at LaVell Edwards Stadium will be the 101st meeting between the University of Utah and BYU football programs. It’s a rivalry game that won’t be going away anytime soon. But new alliances could potentially complicate the game’s future.
Coming into this season, there were seven remaining scheduled contests between the forever in-state rivals. The scheduled contest Saturday night in Provo, and then each season from 2024-28. Following the COVID-caused postponement of the 2020 game at Rice-Eccles Stadium, that the contest has been moved to the 2030 season.
How many times the Utes and Cougars will face off after that is a question that may be impacted by BYU’s move to the Big 12, and the Pac-12′s new alliance with the ACC and Big Ten.
“Our philosophy hasn’t changed, the rivalry hasn’t changed. It’s important to both institutions, it’s important to this state, and I would say it’s important to college football because rivalries are something that is unique,” Harlan told The Tribune during a recent interview. “Nothing has changed in my mind on that. (BYU athletic director) Tom Holmoe and I will continue to converse as we do about that and other matters, but we intend to keep playing each other, and we have a contract. We’ll see where all the dust settles on this.”
With BYU formally accepting an invitation to the Big 12, and announcing it would begin playing a Big 12 schedule in 2023, Holmoe addressed the issue Friday.
“The last couple of years, the relationship between BYU and Utah has been a little bit more open,” he said. “We’re transparent with each other’s needs. Being in two separate conferences now in football, we’ll have needs and desires like Utah has had as a member of the Pac-12.”
By all accounts, Harlan and Holmoe have a positive working relationship, which dates back to at least 2014. At that time, Harlan, then the athletic director at South Florida, negotiated a home-and-home football series with Holmoe and the Cougars for several years down the road.
Holmoe said he has not formally discussed the issue with Harlan since BYU learned it would be accepted into the Big 12, but hoped to start that conversation soon. The two men may intend to keep having their football programs play each other, but there is no guarantee Utah and BYU will keep playing each other in perpetuity.
“We’re both going to have to see what it looks like, when and who we play, and what the scheduling windows look like,” Holmoe said.
Those windows could also depend on the still-unknown scheduling component of the alliance between the ACC, Big Ten and Pac-12.
New Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff has indicated the ultimate goal would be for all three conferences to shift from nine leagues games to eight, whether that be renegotiating current media rights deals or negotiating that once media rights deals come due. With eight conference games, that would leave four nonconference slots. Within the four, each league would add two annual nonconference matchups with the other. Those two nonconference matchups would be home-and-home series.
When that might start, or at least be feasible, is up for debate. But it has become clear that if Kliavkoff’s master plan ultimately comes to fruition, it will alter how non-conference schedules are created moving forward.
From a Utah football perspective, the next nonconference schedule opening is in 2025. Harlan said during an ESPN700 interview on Aug. 25 that he intends to offer that space up as an “alliance game,” and that he anticipates it will be filled as such. The two already-scheduled games in 2025 are a trip to Wyoming as part of a home-and-home agreement and a trip to BYU.
“It is fun to think about what it could look like, recognizing that the road is pretty long,” Harlan told The Tribune. “We certainly, like others, have done a lot of scheduling prior to the alliance and the cooperative measure that we’re now under, but I love the concept of thinking that you could have a Big Ten and an ACC team on your schedule on a regular basis, home and away. I think that would be great for college football and for Utah, thinking about the cities we could go to.
“Our students love playing those matchups. That being said, tempering expectations for all involved, coaches, players, fans and all involved, we do have schedules that are pretty far out there. It’ll come in due time, but in the basketball space, we could see some activity on that sooner because of the way those schedules are done. Those meetings, along with football, are going to take place pretty quickly to see how those types of things could work.”
While nonconference schedules in football are put together years, if not more than a decade in advance, the majority of a nonconference basketball schedule is signed off on less than a year in advance, which has led to the belief that “alliance scheduling” in basketball may begin as soon as 2022-23.
The ACC/Big Ten/Pac-12 alliance has a lot of questions to answer before anything tangible happens.
BYU’s status isn’t exactly easy to decipher right now, either.
As one of seven FBS independents, the Cougars have cobbled together their own 12-game regular-season schedule for the past decade. The Cougars will begin playing a Big 12 schedule in 2023, which could make for an interesting scenario in terms of who BYU wants to keep on its nonconference schedule and who it may want to alter or even cancel contracts with.
“We could be restricted to certain times of the year. Maybe there are certain openings. Those are discussions I look forward to having,” Holmoe said.
There has been no indication that, despite their respective circumstances, that Utah or BYU want to cancel games against each other that are already under contract. In fact, Utah doesn’t appear to have an appetite to get rid of any nonconference opponent that is currently under contract, specifically the in-state FCS teams already slated to visit Rice-Eccles Stadium.
The Utes are scheduled to host Southern Utah twice (2022, 2024), Weber State (2023) and Dixie State (2028-30), for a total of $4.175 million in one-time guaranteed payments to those schools, according to game contracts obtained by The Tribune via open records laws.
The game contracts for Southern Utah and Weber State include $1 million buyout clauses, should Utah want to get out of the game, while both Dixie State games have $575,000 buyout clauses attached to them.
“It’s hard for me to imagine that being a part of this,” Harlan said of canceling games. “Every school would have to speak for themselves. I’ve been on the side of someone calling you and telling you they’re canceling a contract, and it doesn’t feel good. I think we have to be very wise to that. Nothing is off the table because I think we have to really study how the alliance is going to come together.
“The league made it very clear to its member institutions that there is no expectation for us to do that. That is solely a university-by-university decision. That is not a part of the agreement of this alliance.”