SALT LAKE CITY —

The latest gut-punch in the BYU-Utah football rivalry arrived this week when it was announced the Utes will play nine rather than eight conference games, once they join the Pac-10.

Which means they will have just three non-conference dates available.

Which means it will be that much harder to make sure one of the great rivalries in college football continues.

Still, they're not splitting atoms here. Play the game and clean up the collateral damage afterward. Sorry, Utah State. See ya, Boise State. So long, Pittsburgh, if necessary.

BYU and Utah have a rivalry to save.

There has been considerable talk that Utah's move from the Mountain West could kill the rivalry, due to scheduling conflicts. Coaches and administrators from both schools have noted they'd love to continue the series, but none has publicly said it's a sure deal. Want to know the truth? It is if they want it to be.

They say they're working on it, and there's no reason to doubt them. Nevertheless, it would be nice to hear it from their lips: Utah vs. BYU, to infinity and beyond.

That's not to say there are no complications. The Pac-10 will almost certainly demand the Utes play only conference games late in the year. The MWC has already said it will substitute Utah with Boise State in the late-November schedule. There goes the traditional late-season Ute-Cougar matchup.

One of the other reported obstacles, at least for now, is that keeping the series alive might require the schools to play twice in a row at Utah. That's because Utah hosts BYU this year, but in 2011 could have seven road games if it played at BYU, which is neither financially nor competitively realistic. But BYU has said it isn't interested in playing consecutive years at Utah. Not only would it be difficult, it would put BYU in a slightly subservient position.

Meanwhile, Utah coach Kyle Whittingham has said he doesn't blame the Cougars for balking at two straight games in Salt Lake; he wouldn't do it if the situation were reversed.

Still, that gets back to the original question of just how badly these teams want to keep the game. Enough to play on the other team's home field twice in a row? Enough to play at season's start instead of the end? Or especially this: Enough to cancel some games that are already scheduled like, say, Boise State (Utah), Utah State (BYU), Hawaii (BYU), Pittsburgh (Utah) or Oregon State (BYU)?

(Let's draw the cutoff line at Texas, which is scheduled to play BYU in 2011.)

Those are tough choices but not as tough as dropping the Utah-BYU game.

These, of course, aren't unique ideas, just logical. Yet circumstances have so far stalled an announcement. Some of that is just a matter of working things out with their respective conferences. Florida and Florida State manage to play each other every year, despite being in different conferences. Clemson and South Carolina have played every year since 1909. Other crossover rivals: Iowa and Iowa State, Florida-Florida State, Louisville-Kentucky, Georgia-Georgia Tech and Colorado State-Colorado.

Utah and Utah State have played every year since 1944, until a two-year break was mutually agreed upon, beginning this season. They probably played longer than they should have. Utah has won 12 straight and 20 of 22. They played games in August, September, October and November and when USU was in the PCAA, the Big West, the Sun Belt, the WAC and when it was independent.

They worked it out.

If Utah and USU were able to keep a rivalry going, BYU and Utah can, too.

So they say it's a work in progress. Good for them. This is complicated, but it isn't like unclogging the court system.

What if Utah does have only three open dates instead of four? Make BYU one of them.

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BYU athletics director Tom Holmoe says he'll do what's best for BYU. What is best? Playing Utah every year. It's written in the stars.

Speaking of which, this is probably a good place to quote Jean-Luc Picard, captain of the Starship Enterprise, who often said to his first officer, "Make it so, No. 1."

That's an order.

e-mail: rock@desnews.com