This article originated from HowToWatchSports.com
The BYU-Utah clash is no slouch among the elite rivalries in college football. Both teams have had long periods of dominance over the other, but BYU fans have one bragging right that Utah can’t claim.
BYU has won a national championship.
But while BYU has the title under its belt, Utah has in recent years just as much claim—and perhaps more—to college football’s ultimate prize.
As a BYU alum myself, I feel like I need to wash my hands after typing that.
Upon inspection, BYU’s title run in 1984 and Utah’s undefeated campaigns in 2005 and 2009 are strikingly similar. The main difference then, between having a championship and not, turns out to be the era that they played in—BYU before any organized bowl alliance, and Utah during the stern watch of the BCS.
BYU in 1984
BYU’s national championship in 1984 came as an undefeated regular season, capped by a 24-17 win over Michigan in the Holiday Bowl. That was well before the formation of the BCS or any sort of bowl alliance, and so BYU was awarded the title by the selection of the AP voters.
The Cougars’ schedule was highlighted by blowout victories—47-13, 52-9, 48-0, 42-9, 34-3—but the criticism then was the same as now. BYU was playing in the relatively-weak Western Athletic Conference, and those big wins came against the likes of Baylor, Colorado State, New Mexico, UTEP, and San Diego State, in that order.
Because of the WAC’s bowl affiliation, BYU was obligated to appear in the Holiday Bowl by virtue of winning the conference. The Holiday Bowl was a mid-level bowl at best, however, and struggled to come up with an elite challenger to play No. 1 BYU.
They finally invited Bo Schembechler’s Michigan team; they carried clout for playing in the Big Ten, and simply for being Michigan. But this Wolverine squad was 6-5 on the season, and so the game still fell well short of being a championship game.
It was enough to appease the voters, however. Even with a non-spectacular 24-17 win the Cougars, led by quarterback Robbie Bosco and Hall of Fame coach LaVell Edwards, sealed up their first national championship.
Utah in 2004
Now fast-forward 20 years—and Utah’s season is nearly the same.
Led by coach Urban Meyer and quarterback Alex Smith, the Utes rumbled through their 2004 Mountain West Conference schedule, posting 63 points twice and winning every game by at least 14 points.
They even dismantled rival BYU, 52-21.
But when bowl time came, the BCS slotted Utah (the first non-BCS conference team to ever play in a BCS bowl) in the Fiesta Bowl against Big East champion Pittsburgh, who had gone 8-3 on the year.
Utah won convincingly, 35-7, capping an undefeated and record-breaking season. But by virtue of not playing in the BCS championship game, they weren’t even eligible to be named the national champion as BYU had been in 1984.
That year was an anomaly, however, and it ends up unlikely that Utah would have been named the big winner regardless: three teams ended the season undefeated (USC and Auburn were the others), and Matt Leinart, Reggie Bush, and the USC Trojans left little question who was No. 1 after demolishing Oklahoma 55-19 in the Orange Bowl.
Utah in 2008
So, just a few years later, the Utes put on an encore.
In 2008, the Utes didn’t dominate as completely as in 2004, beating Michigan by two points to start the season and winning three games by three points apiece, but still eked out the unblemished season.
They were heavy underdogs against 12-1 Alabama in the Sugar Bowl, with Bama’s only loss coming against eventual BCS Champion Florida in the SEC championship game. Still, they beat the odds and the Tide in one fell swoop, winning the game 31-17 to cap their undefeated run.
When the final rankings were released, Utah had beaten four teams in the top 25 (BYU, TCU, Oregon State, and Alabama) and were the only undefeated team in the country.
And while the Utes’ bowl victory over a top-tier SEC team was arguably more impressive than BYU’s in 1984, they again still weren’t eligible for a championship.
It’s clear that had Utah made a run like in 2004 or 2008 before the BCS had been formed, they could have brought home the big trophy based on the AP vote (they were ranked first in the Anderson & Hester, Massey, and Wolfe rankings, but none of those carry weight).
Likewise, if BYU were to replicate their 1984 run now, it likely wouldn’t be enough for a championship—they’d end up in a BCS bowl lesser than the BCS championship game just as Utah did, and not be eligible to bring home the title.
It just adds fuel to the Holy War rivalry fire to realize that the only thing that elevates BYU above Utah, in terms of their national title, is simply the bowl system that existed in the year the games were played.
Call it unfair, call it a scam, call it whatever you’d like, but the truth is that BYU has a title and Utah doesn’t, even after very similar performances.
And as a BYU fan, I suppose that’s okay with me.