SALT LAKE CITY — Rivalry week is here and it looks like it's going to be as fun as ever, after all.
A month ago, the outcome of the Utah-BYU game looked like a foregone conclusion, with Utah sailing along among the nation's elite and BYU trying to escape its worse stretch of games in years.
However, things have changed dramatically. The Utes went from looking invincible to ordinary with back-to-back losses to TCU and Notre Dame before bouncing back with a gutsy win Saturday night in rainy San Diego. Meanwhile BYU has looked as sharp as any recent Cougar team with three straight wins by a combined score of 144-24.
A recent story on ESPN.com listed the most important rivalries of the past decade and put Utah's No. 9. Perhaps it may not be "most important" on a national scale, but there certainly hasn't been a better series of rivalry games over the past decade than Utah-BYU.
Since 2000, the series is tied 5-5. Every game but two (Utah's wins in their perfect season years) were decided in the final minute or less. Two games were decided in overtime. One was even decided about 10 seconds after the final gun.
Who has an edge this week?
Well, if you compare scores, Utah has outscored its Mountain West Conference opponents by a 256-140 margin compared to BYU's 210-131 margin. That's an average score of 37-20 for Utah and 30-19 for BYU, about a six-point per game difference. That seems about right, plus Utah has the home field advantage.
BOWL PICTURE: If the Utes had lost their third straight game at San Diego and then lost this week, they could have been relegated to the New Mexico Bowl or the Armed Forces Bowl in Fort Worth in the postseason.
Now the Utes are probably headed to the Las Vegas Bowl, which is expected to take the Utes, win or lose this week. The thinking is, even with a Ute loss, the Las Vegas folks would take a 9-3 Utah team that has been ranked all year over a 7-5 BYU team, and has not played there in nine years. Plus the bowl would sort of keep its Pac-10 ties, considering the Pac-10 isn't likely to be able to send a representative to this year's game on Dec. 22.
BYU is bowl eligible with its win over New Mexico and could end up playing in any of the MWC-affiliated bowls, Las Vegas, New Mexico, Armed Forces or Independence Bowl. It's still possible the Las Vegas Bowl folks will want to make it six in a row for BYU if it wins this week and would be coming in with a four-game winning streak.
REALIGNMENT RE-DO: Last week's decision by the Utah High School Activities Association to amend its original realignment decision was the right one, even if it didn't make quite everyone happy. Rivalries and more schools playing closer to home should be more important than exact conformity of numbers in every region. Still some of the smaller schools have a legitimate gripe that they are ignored while the Orems and Highlands of the world get their way. The bottom four schools in 3A should be playing in 2A, but that was one change that was too complicated at the last minute. At least realignment will get addressed in two years rather than four. The UHSAA system isn't perfect but it's getting better.
STRANGE GAME: Did you see any of the Illinois-Northwestern game at Wrigley Field on Saturday? As a Cubs' fan who loves Wrigley, I kept my eye on the game, but it was strange to see each offensive team always going from right to left across the TV screen.
If you don't know, the Big Ten decided Friday that the east end zone was too close to the brick outfield wall for safety purposes. So every time the ball was exchanged during the game, the teams changed sides and the offensive team had to head west. It was a goofy way to play a major college football game, but it worked for the most part, although I felt sorry for the fans at the east side. I would have demanded a refund.
KEEPING IT CIVIL: One last thing on Saturday's big BYU-Utah game. After the some of the ugliness of recent years, let's hope the players and fans can keep their emotions under control before, during and after the game. I think both sides are trying to take some of the rancor out of the rivalry and make it more civil. Let's hope everyone can get along this week and just have fun.