During his brief tenure as Utah's offensive coordinator under Urban Meyer, UNLV head coach Mike Sanford witnessed extreme ends of the spectrum in games between BYU and Utah.
In 2003, Sanford saw the Utes edge the Cougars by a 3-0 margin amid snowy conditions at LaVell Edwards Stadium — snapping an NCAA record 361-game scoring streak for BYU. A year later, the game went in an entirely opposite direction as Utah blasted BYU 52-21 at Rice-Eccles Stadium to clinch the school's first BCS bowl berth.
Those two games were all Sanford needed to know where the "Holy War" fit into the national college football landscape.
"It's an awesome rivalry," Sanford said, while addressing reporters during the weekly Mountain West coaches teleconference on Tuesday morning. "Rivalries are great in general. I can't rank them one through five or one through 10. All I can say is, the BYU-Utah rivalry is at the very top."
A consensus among MWC coaches outside the state is the greatness of the Utah-BYU rivalry game is heightened by the sheer talent and level of success present in both football programs.
Air Force coach Troy Calhoun identified specific strengths to each team. The Cougars, he said, have tremendous size on both sides of the ball and benefit from the leadership of a veteran quarterback in Max Hall. With the Utes, Calhoun likes their athleticism and tackling abilities. He also described Eddie Wide and David Reed as "home-run hitters" at the skill positions.
One common thread the Falcons coach sees between BYU and Utah is a stamp of consistency within each football program.
"You just look from top to bottom and both football programs are exceptionally strong," Calhoun said. "It's not just one game or not just one season. When you look here over the last five years or so, both have built programs that are going to be good year in and year out."
Wyoming coach Dave Christensen got a taste of big-time Big 12 rivalries as an assistant coach at Missouri. Upon taking the job at Laramie, he quickly noticed that the passion and quality of rivalries within the Mountain West — from Wyoming-Colorado State to BYU-Utah — are as good as those he was exposed to in his old conference.
"They're equal in terms of the intensity and the rivalries," Christensen said.
So who do the other Mountain West coaches think will win when Utah and BYU face off in Provo on Saturday? That's one question to which none had a sure answer.
"It's going to be a really close game," Sanford said. "There's no way I could pick a winner."
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