It is sounding more and more likely that the Brigham Young Cougars and the Utah Utes will not continue their rivalry on the football field after the 2012 season. While the Cougars and Utes will continue to be rivals off the field, BYU and Utah can’t be considered archrivals if they don’t play each other every year. Who will become BYU’s new archrival?
Three schools quickly come to mind: Boise State, Hawaii, and Utah State. The Cougars do have an annual game scheduled with Hawaii for several years, and the Polynesian ties for each school raise the stakes, but the geography makes it too difficult for BYU and Hawaii to be archrivals. That cuts the list down to two.
The Utah State Aggies are the obvious first choice. BYU has played the other in-state school 81 times dating back to 1922—the first year BYU played football. History is a very important element to a rivalry. The history between BYU and Utah State goes way beyond the final score of the football game.
Two of the most important coaches in BYU football history were players at Utah State. Alvin Twitchell was the head coach of the first BYU football team in 1922. Before that he played football for the Aggies. Half a century later, the BYU football program was still struggling to find an identity and sustain success.
That’s when LaVell Edwards was hired as football coach. Edwards played football at Utah State from 1949-51. His achievements as an Aggie pale in comparison to what he did at BYU. Edwards turned BYU into a football powerhouse; a powerhouse that dominated Utah State nearly every year.
During Edwards’ tenure, BYU stopped waiting until Utah State players had finished their eligibility to steal them away from the program. James Dye was named second team All-Big West as a kickoff return specialist in 1993. He was wearing Cougar blue in 1995 and led the nation in punt returns with a 21.9 yard average. When the Cougars and Aggies faced off in 1996, Dye tortured Aggie fans as he returned a punt 79-yards for a touchdown. Dye also had key touchdown receptions for BYU in the two biggest wins of the season (Texas A&M—Pigskin Classic, Kansas State—Cotton Bowl).
Even after Edwards retired following the 2000 season, the rivalry continued to flourish. Boasting a 27-point halftime lead in 2002, the Aggies must have been all smiles in the locker room. The Utah State cheers had turned to tears by game’s end as BYU mounted the largest come-from-behind vicotry in school history to beat Utah State 35-34. BYU also kept stealing players.
Kelly Poppinga was a key member of the Utah State defense in 2004. He finished third on the team with 61 tackles. When BYU and Utah State played in 2006, the first game since the 2002 classic, Poppinga was popping Aggie ball carries. His senior season, 2007, he led BYU in tackles with 113 tackles. That was more than future NFL linebackers Bryan Kehl and David Nixon.
Most recently, quarterback Riley Nelson did not return to Utah State in 2009 following his missionary service. Utah State did not take kindly to BYU swiping away this Cache Valley icon. They petitioned the NCAA to change its transfer rules regarding missionaries. Nelson and BYU, however, may have gotten the last laugh. With Utah State leading BYU 24-13, just last year, and in complete control of the game, Nelson came off the bench and guided the Cougars to victory in stunning fashion. He took over the starting duties the next week and became quite the sensation in Provo.
This history has created some bad blood between the fan bases, another key ingredient for a rivalry. Throw in the fact that Utah State head coach Gary Anderson has the Aggies competitive with BYU again, and this rivalry is as heated as it has ever been.
One thing that BYU and Boise State do not have is a lot of history on the field. The Cougars and Broncos have played just twice, and the Broncos won both. Yet, animosity already exists between the fan bases.
Maybe it is the royal blue that Boise State wears and that many BYU fans wish the Cougars would return to. Maybe it is the similar acronyms—BYU and BSU. Maybe it is that both schools are nestled away in the Rocky Mountains.
The most likely reason fans on both sides are anxious to square off every year is the way Boise State rose to prominence in the 2000s much like BYU did twenty years earlier in the 1980s. Conveniently for Boise State, the first two meetings on the gridiron occurred when BYU was suffering its first back-to-back losing seasons in over 30 years. As a result, the Broncos threatened, and then overthrew, BYU as the most nationally respected mid-major football program. Bronco Mendenhall has gotten BYU back on the right track, which makes it the perfect time to renew the series and determine who is the better program.
Much like with Utah, religion compounds these factors. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is responsible for founding many cities in Idaho. There are hundreds of thousands of Church members in the state today. No doubt several of these Church members are BYU graduates and probably encounter Boise State fans daily at work and school. In the last decade, some BYU families have probably become divided as a son or daughter chose to attend Boise State. Church members in Idaho who were BYU fans by default may have switched allegiances to cheer for the home team.
Geographically and culturally, BYU and BSU are a natural fit for a rivalry. The absence of history head-to-head is partially offset by other similarities.
Who is the archrival?
The number one rule for rivalries is they can’t be forced. The current relationship BYU has with Utah State and Boise State are good foundations to build on. Competitiveness will be the key. BYU’s new archrival will be the school that is more competitive. As long as there is no shared conference affiliation, there will be little more than bragging rights to play for in these games, and a one sided series will get old fast.
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