PROVO — There are striking differences with this year's version of the annual Rivalry Game.
For starters, BYU and Utah are squaring off in September instead of November. And it's a nonconference clash, with the Cougars in their first season as a football independent and the Utes in their first season as part of the Pac-12 (and members of the exclusive Bowl Championship Series club). There are no bowl bids at stake or conference implications.
But when it comes to the game itself, the Cougars say nothing has really changed.
It's still BYU vs. Utah on Saturday (7:15 p.m., ESPN2), and there are in-state bragging rights on the line.
"I think it's the same. At least from our perspective, it's the same," BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall said of the rivalry. "It doesn't mean it's more important or less important. It's the same."
This rivalry has become one of the most competitive in the country. Since 1989, both teams have won 11 games apiece, and in the last six meetings, the two teams have each won three.
What's more, 12 of the last 15 grudge matches have been decided by seven points or less. Several of those games, including Utah's 17-16 win last season at Rice-Eccles Stadium, have come down to the game's final play.
BYU is expecting another close, physical and emotional contest this weekend.
"I like the competitive nature of the game. I like games that are going to be fiercely contested," Mendenhall said. "That part of it is really exciting."
Then there's the part the coach doesn't enjoy — the way some fans on both sides behave when the Cougars and Utes get together.
"All the rest of it, in terms of how my neighbors and anyone else react to it, I could do without," he said. "I would just like it to be a first-class rivalry. The games certainly indicate that, that they're going to be down to the last play and they're going to be very competitive. I don't know how it will affect all the surrounding fans and the stadium conduct."
Because the rivalry game is being played earlier than ever, there's the lack of a season-long buildup to this annual showdown.
"Really, the rivalry isn't really so much noticeable to me when you play the game," Mendenhall said. "It's all the things in the community leading up to it. I haven't been out in the community enough yet this week to grasp it yet."
Still, Mendenhall expects that there will be just as much passion as ever come game day.
BYU running back Bryan Kariya said that, for him, the rivalry hasn't changed.
"I honestly don't feel like it has much at all," he said. "We're playing in September instead of November. That's about it for me. It's another great team that we have to prepare for … I try to approach it as any other game so I don't mess up in my mental preparation.
"But there's definitely a great drive to go out and win the game while we're out there. It hurts a little bit more when you lose, but it's a little bit sweeter when you win."
Senior safety Travis Uale acknowledged that some of the circumstances surrounding the game are different this year.
"I'm sure a little bit has been taken away because a win or a loss won't mean the same thing because Utah has its own conference and we aren't in a conference," he said. "I'm sure it's lost a little bit that way, on paper. But for us, we feel like it's the same. It's a good opportunity to play a good team."
For BYU, for the first time, playing Utah is an opportunity to beat a team from an AQ BCS conference.
"A win against Utah would be really good because they are in an automatic qualifying BCS conference now," Uale said. "It would be a great win for us if that happens. It would be good for us."
"It's always a good game when we play Utah, no matter whether they're ranked and we're not or whether we're ranked and they're not," said linebacker Jameson Frazier. "It's a great game. It's one of the great rivalries in college football right now."
Cougars and Utes on the air
Utah (1-1) at BYU (1-1)
Saturday, 7:15 p.m.
LaVell Edwards Stadium, Provo
Radio: 700 AM, 1160 AM, 102.7 FM
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