SALT LAKE CITY — Way back in ancient times (OK, 2010), BYU-Utah week was a period of fear and loathing. The block U and Brother Brigham's statue were on high security alert. Players were held up to criticism and comparison all year. Announcers and even beat writers covering the teams were subject to taunts and occasional threats.
The buildup and letdown was nearly unbearable. Practically everyone involved in the game admitted that losing meant a year of abject misery. But that's not the case anymore. Look around. There's definitely interest, but you won't find nearly as many people losing sleep. There's too much territory ahead.
So welcome to the 2011 Irrelevant Bowl. Winner gets ... um ... er ... a week's worth of satisfaction.
For long-term purposes, they may as well be playing Utah State.
Truth is, the coaches are relieved. Bronco Mendenhall admitted as much on Monday, saying he loves the game but he can do without the other stuff. Now the focus can actually be about the game, not the rivalry. There's no doubt both teams want to win, but they likely won't have to deal with as many distractions. They aren't playing for a conference title or bowl invitation, either. Mostly they're playing for the same thing they did when the teams first met in 1896: the chance to win.
Somebody should have thought of this sooner.
Even including years when neither team was contending for a championship, the game has seldom meant less. Talk about a conversation killer. Discussing Utah-BYU these days is like discussing "American Idol" — interesting for awhile, but not riveting.
A week from now, it will be as though the game hardly happened.
To begin, both teams have already lost, so neither is threatening to leap into the Top 25. A Utah win likely won't have a lot to do with where BYU ends up in the postseason. The Cougars are already booked for the Armed Forces Bowl unless they fail to win six games. Meanwhile, Utah is still hoping it can go to the Rose Bowl. Since USC is ineligible for postseason play, the Utes could finish second in the South Division and play in the Pac-12 championship game, regardless of Saturday's outcome.
With the Pac-12 holding seven bowl tie-ins, a loss to the Cougars isn't likely to affect the Utes' postseason.
That's not to say the game won't be compelling. Just twice in the last 14 years has the game been decided by more than a touchdown. But the teams will be more in the moment, not so worried about long-range implications. Utah can still do just fine without beating the Cougars and vice versa. While a win over a Pac-12 team might help BYU's image, it would likely do nothing for its bowl aspirations; virtually all the invitations are preassigned.
Although the significance of the rivalry game has changed, the competitiveness probably hasn't. BYU isn't budging when it says it hopes to win a national championship in the next several years. Likewise, the Utes aren't averse to admitting their goal is the Rose Bowl and beyond. Nor is the rivalry completely dead. The teams still don't like one another. This is a week for non-conference rivalries, anyway: Louisville-Kentucky, Colorado State-Colorado, Delaware State-Delaware.
It's not like any of those teams can lose and go, "Mehhh."
But ultimately, following Utah vs. BYU will be a lot like reading supermarket celebrity magazines: You don't care that much, but you'll take a peek while you're waiting at checkout.
Saturday's game should be close. Fans and players will almost certainly get into the atmosphere. After all, it is BYU-Utah. Just don't expect people to still be talking about it when the last week of November rolls around.
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