A Rivalry That Will Matter: BYU-Utah and The 2008 "Holy War"

Mordecai BrownerAnalyst ISeptember 3, 2008

On Nov. 22, college football fans might see an intense rivalry game that will double as a playoff into the BCS. Players and fans will make the stadium buzz with a fierce intensity and, briefly, the college world will witness yet another event that seems to transcend mortal reason.

It ain't going to be Michigan-Ohio State.

That normally thrilling, unquestionable king of college football rivalries will have its most lackluster pairing in years. While Ohio State may be playing for a conference championship, the Buckeyes will likely be well out of the national title picture (I'm a hardcore Big Ten homer, but let's be honest with ourselves), and Michigan will be lucky not to have four or five losses by that point.

While the game remains one of the best in sports, it's simply going to lack intrigue compared to past editions, especially for non-Big Ten fans.

I'm also not referring to Alabama-Auburn, Kansas-Missouri, or Georgia-Georgia Tech, nor would I be referring to South Carolina-Clemson had we not witnessed a meltdown in Atlanta last weekend; all of these marquee match-ups take place Nov. 29.

Nor am I speaking of Notre Dame, which might be playing for a BCS berth if Irish God drinks enough Guiness; they have an "off" week against Syracuse on the 22nd, nestled between the Navy and USC games.

No, I speak of BYU-Utah, the "Holy War" rivalry game that might see two top 15 undefeated teams square off for a chance to play in the BCS.


Absolutely. After their upset win in the Big House, Utah has an extremely favorable schedule. Its two toughest games prior to meeting BYU are both at home (Oregon State on Oct. 2 and TCU on November 6), and the rest of the schedule is what a bigger conference team would term a cupcake-walk.

Utah coach Kyle Whittingham has shown the Utes haven't lost that much steam from the Urban Meyer years. Talent-wise, they've proven they have enough skill to pull off multiple big-game wins (vs. Georgia Tech in the 2005 Emerald Bowl, last year's upset win against UCLA), but have had mixed results against conference peers (including being shut out by UNLV last season).

The key for Utah will be consistently "taking care of business," and with Wittingham's squad slightly improving each year (he's bettered his record each year he's been head coach) and holding a favorable schedule in its grasp, it looks like 2008 might feature a repeat of 2004's success.

BYU has the tougher road to an undefeated "Holy War." Its next two weeks pair it against Pac-10 foes, although both games are certainly favorable to Cougar victories. Bronco Mendenhall and Co. picked a fortuitous time to travel to Washington.

While UCLA comes off an overtime win over Tennessee, BYU certainly has the talent to dispose of the Bruins at home, unless Rick Neuheisel has taken his final plunge and signed a pact with Satan.

The only other speedbump on the schedule seems to be Oct. 16, when the Cougars have to travel to TCU.

Overall, each should be favored in all their remaining contests. And if they both keep winning, they'll keep climbing the rankings as the conferences self-mutilate, as happens every season, snowballing interest in their Nov. 22 matchup.

As long as they both do their part and stave off any blemishing upsets (which is a big "if" in the college football universe), they'll meet in the greatest "Holy War" in history, a cataclysmic merging of matter and anti-matter that might mercilessly incinerate the entire state of Utah.

Perhaps not—but it will be hyped like no "Holy War" has been on a national scale.

Neither side is a stranger to entering the BYU-Utah game undefeated. In 2001, BYU brought an undefeated squad and emerged victorious after a thrilling fourth-quarter comeback. In '04, it was Utah's turn, as the undefeated Utes dominated the Cougars, 52-21.

But both undefeated? Never happened. Not really even close.

Heck, owing to domination by one squad or the other, BYU and Utah didn't even meet as ranked opponents until 1994 despite having 80-plus years of consistent play.

Of course, that hasn't stopped the rivalry from being one of the most passionate, even if ignored, rivalries in college sports. While other rivalries have off-the-field cultural elements (Army-Navy, many of the Notre Dame games, Stanford-Cal), BYU-Utah is one of the few games that features religion and political structure so prominently as antagonizing forces.

While this element has been tempered in recent times (Whittingham himself is an outspoken member of the LDS church), the contrast between the two schools remains a unique element.

And while few outside the brief stretch of interstate next to Great Salt Lake have traditionally cared about the "Holy War," this year needs to be the exception. There's a very strong chance it will be the only late-season rivalry game that pairs undefeated squads, and it just might be the only place to catch a truly engaging rivalry game this Nov. 22.

Even in Columbus.