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BYU-Utah rivalry taking on a different feel

Published: Friday, June 17 2011 8:34 p.m. MDT

Jimmer Fredette shoots over Chris Kupets in the Cougars' convincing win. The feel and importance of games between the rival schools will shift this season and in the future.

Tom Smart, Deseret News

Editor's note: This is the fourth in an occasional series examining the BYU football program's move to independence and jump to the West Coast Conference in most other sports.

PROVO — Nobody knows exactly how surreal things might seem on Sept. 17 at LaVell Edwards Stadium when BYU and Utah play their annual rivalry football game.

And things might seem even more surreal come the fourth weekend in November, when the Cougars have a bye and the Utes host Colorado on a Friday afternoon.

Instead of playing their traditional end-of-the-regular-season showdown, BYU and Utah meet in the month of September, something that hasn't happened since 1958. Instead of potentially playing for a conference championship or bowl berth, it will simply be a game for bragging rights, televised on ESPN2.

This fall, the Cougars are going independent and the Utes are joining the Pac-12 Conference, forever altering the dynamics of this passionate rivalry.

"It will change," said BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe. "I don't know which way."

Some say the rivalry will become kinder and gentler because the two teams are playing earlier in the season. Others argue that it will only be more intense because now it will be a battle between a team from a BCS automatic qualifying school against a non-AQ.

Whatever the feelings surrounding the rivalry, both schools are committed to keeping the storied series going.

"We'll play them in all sports. We're not afraid of them and they're not afraid of us," Holmoe has said. "For the athletes and coaches, we have a very good respect for each other. When we get out onto the field, it's tough. But everyone who's played in that (rivalry) respects it. We need to continue that. Some people don't like it, don't think we should (play Utah). Some people want to play 11 games in a row against them.

"On the field, it's one of the best games or matches you'll ever see. Nobody will get more anxious, nervous, excited and have a chance to fall apart or excel than in that game. In the history of our tradition, some of the very best performances in the history of BYU have happened against Utah. Why in the world would we ever throw that away?"

BYU and Utah are scheduled to play in football through 2012, while Holmoe and Utah athletic director Chris Hill have spoken recently about future games.

The two schools have signed a four-year home-and-home series in basketball, with one game each season on the second Saturday in December. The first game will tip off Dec. 10, 2011, at the Huntsman Center.

"You won't see as many games," Holmoe said. "We'll probably play them just once a year in most every sport now, then alternate facilities. They like it and we like it. I think it will be as intense, if not more. I expect them to be good, and I look forward to those games."

"We are excited to continue our rivalry with BYU in football and men's basketball, and our other sports are busy working out the logistics to make it happen as well," Hill said. "It is an important rivalry to our fans and to everyone involved with Utah athletics."

Holmoe is hoping to see BYU and Utah play football in November again someday, but Pac-12 policies prohibiting non-conference games in that month are preventing that from happening.

"I'd love it to be the last game of the season for us," Holmoe said. "But that's a Pac-10 thing. Maybe in a couple of years they'll take a look at it."

Since 1990, the football rivalry has been evenly matched, with Utah winning 11 games and BYU winning 10 during that span.

Cougar football coach Bronco Mendenhall has acknowledged that the feeling around the rivalry will be different.

"There's no way the rivalry can remain quite the same, when you consider both teams not being in the same league, and the game not being played the last game of the year with potentially a conference championship on the line," he said.

In basketball, the BYU-Utah rivalry is one of the oldest in the country. The Cougars lead the all-time series by a slim margin, 127-125.

"(The rivalry) will change because we'll play only once a year. To me, that game (against Utah) will become an even bigger game," said BYU basketball coach Dave Rose. "Since I've been here, you've always got the second game after the first one. It will be a one-shot deal, then you live with that through the year.

"For now, I'm excited about the fact we have a four-year deal and the game will continue. But I think definitely the feel of the rivalry will change."

email: jeffc@desnews.com

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