PROVO — As an independent program, BYU obviously can't win a conference championship.
But independence has put an even bigger premium on winning a state championship. Since he became the Cougars' head coach eight years ago, Bronco Mendenhall has consistently stressed to his team the importance of being state champions.
That has proven to be an increasingly difficult feat in recent years, particularly with Utah State's vast improvement. The last time BYU won the Beehive Boot — symbolic of in-state supremacy — was 2009. In fact, since 2010, the Cougars have posted a dismal 1-3 record against Utah and Utah State.
Just how important is a state title to BYU?
"It means a lot, it really does. We can't accomplish our goals if we don't win the state," said Cougar quarterback Riley Nelson. "The fun thing about that is, there are two other quality teams in the state. As the rankings work themselves out and the strength of schedule becomes so important, having wins against Utah and Utah State, if we're lucky and fortunate enough to come out of those games with victories, will look very good on our resume. We play good football in the state of Utah, and to win state would be a great accomplishment."
In order to have a shot at claiming this year's Beehive Boot, the Cougars need a victory Saturday (8 p.m., MDT, ESPN2) at Utah.
The Utes fell last weekend at Utah State, 27-20, in overtime. BYU hosts the Aggies on Oct. 5.
Nelson, who started his collegiate career at USU, likes that the three in-state teams seem to be evenly matched.
"It hasn't always been that way," said Nelson, a Logan native who grew up an Aggie fan. "I know it's super-early in the season and there's a lot left to play, but we have three bowl teams in the state. It's really fun football. The fans in the state of Utah should consider themselves fortunate."
Senior linebacker Brandon Ogletree understands what's at stake on Saturday against the Utes.
"It's a rivalry game. It's a big game," he said. "We'll be up for it, they'll be up for it. It's not a game you want to lose and have to wait another year — or, in my case, live with forever. It means a lot to everyone involved with it."
Cougar running back David Foote said that because BYU is independent, every game, including Saturday's showdown against the Utes, is huge.
"Regardless of who it is, every game is crucial to us," he said. "Obviously, you want to win every game. We've got to prepare and go out and win it. This game is big. It's a really big game. I feel like for us, the way we prepare during this week is going to tell how we perform on the field."
TRENDING TOWARD THE RUN: Mendenhall hinted this week that running back Michael Alisa may have an increased workload Saturday against Utah.
"We're trending more in that direction," Mendenhall said.
In two games, Alisa has rushed 24 times for 107 yards and one touchdown, and averaged 4.5 yards per carry.
BYU considers it crucial to be able to run the ball against the Utes.
"It's big. If you can run the ball, that opens up play-action and the passing game," Alisa said. "In the first two games we've done some good things as a running back unit. But there are some things that definitely we can improve upon. Those things have been addressed. It's about going out and executing. If the O-line does their job, it leaves it up to us as running backs to make the right reads. That's when we're at our best, when we're working cohesively as a unit."
SUCCESS AT RICE-ECCLES: Though Nelson is making his first start against the Utes, he has experience playing games at Utah.
Nelson led Logan High to a state championship in 2005 at Rice-Eccles Stadium.
"It was a lot of fun and we had a lot of success," he recalled. "Hopefully that trend continues."
Cougars, Utes on the air
No. 25 BYU (2-0) at Utah (1-1)
Saturday, 8 p.m. MDT
TV: ESPN2 Radio: 1160 AM, 102.7 FM