This year, the annual Holy War between Utah and BYU will take on a whole new meaning.
It will be much more than a single football team where the winner and the loser is clearly defined by the scoreboard.
The outcome of this game will be much more telling.
Not because of the unusual parity between these two teams, (both are 8-2, both boast similar rankings) but because it would be a huge barometer for where these two programs lie.
What would it say if Utah beat BYU for the second straight season. The Utes would boast a better record and a probable top 15 ranking in a “rebuilding” year while the Cougars settle for yet another 9-3 or 8-4, good but not great season.
What hurts the most, it that it implies Utah is playing at a higher level in a year where they've had to replace eight offensive starters and three NFL defenders while starting a true freshman behind center.
Especially in a year that was supposed to be "BYU's year".
BYU returned nearly their entire defense from 2008 and most key members from a stellar 2008 offense, including a prolific RB in Harvey Unga, an accomplished senior QB in Max Hall and a likely All-American TE in Dennis Pitta.
While 2009 has been a terrific season, a loss to Utah would be seen by the Cougar faithful as one of fallen expectations and "just" another 9-3 or 8-4 finish.
After dominating the WAC year-after-year, for nearly two decades during the Lavell Edwards era, they never seemed to get the national recognition they warranted. Sure, Ty won the Heisman and the AP voted them National Champions in 1984—both phenomenal feats for a “mid-major”, but they never seemed to get the respect or the recognition they deserved.
The fans grew used to being the center of the little guy debate.
All of that changed dramatically when Urban Meyer came to town and led Utah to the incredible task of busting the BCS. The Johnny-come-lately Utes did to the BCS what most thought impossible. They beat the system designed to keep them out.
Back then, there were only four bowls, and non-BCS teams had to crack the top six in the BCS standings.
That was easier to cope with for BYU. They were in the midst of moving on from the Gary Crowton era. Utah’s fortune would only mean good things and open possibilities for the new Cougar Coach while the Utes would seemingly fall back into mediocrity after Urban left.
Then came Boise State and the exhilarating Fiesta Bowl. Hawaii, a team that clearly didn’t belong, but that made it nonetheless. And then Utah, again. Now, TCU and possibly Boise State, again.
What do these schools have in common? None were even on the college football map throughout the Reagan-Bush-Clinton administrations while BYU setting the conference on fire. Yet they’ve all been to the show while BYU hasn’t scratched the surface.
The school that wrote the storybook on the plight of the little guy in college football. The school that practically invented the West Coast offense and that germinated Norm Chow.
Last January, while the Cougars celebrated when the Utes toyed with the arrogant SEC powerhouse, there was a hint of jealousy.
Ute envy was born.
Utah, who had only been ranked twice since the 1960’s before Urban Meyer arrived, had suddenly become the face of the conference and the trailblazer against the big bad BCS.
A role that always seemed destined for the Cougars to play.
The Cougars had to do some soul searching. They had tradition, 1984, a Heisman and a plethora of WAC and MWC championship trophies that Utah could never touch.
But they also had a wardrobe of Quest for Perfection T-shirts emblematic of their lofty expectations. The shirts will probably end up some third world country one day or reprinted in crimson but the expectations were morphed into a resolve to win in 2009.
Expectations hit a meteoric peak when the Cougars took down then #3 Oklahoma in a hardly fought game. They seemed well on their way, crushing Tulane 54-3 at the Superdome. Then it all came down, faster than a Seminole Receiver in an open field.
Ute envy returned.
The Cougar’s mechanized their defenses just as you might expect.
They scoffed at the Utes. “Anyone can win a BCS Bowl every leap year, but we’re consistent year in, year out. We’re happy here. Enjoy your Sugar Bowl Trophy, we’ll see you in four years. Enjoy mediocrity”
It was denial turned into reason.
Except that, here we are now deep into 2009 and Utah stand at eye level with BYU, on the exact same page.
For Utah to be on par with the Y in a rebuilding year, is abhorrent. It’s an insult. But at it’s very core, it’s frightening and devastatingly humiliating.
Now you see why this is a must-win for BYU. The only way to cope with Ute envy for now and for the next nine months is to win on Saturday in Provo.
Or else the Cougars will be forced to Coping Mechanism Plan B—Jake Heaps.