SALT LAKE CITY — The suggested column topic from my editor was simple and straightforward: What must the Utes do to “take care of business in Provo?”
How about nothing?
No reason to overthink this.
They should let nature take its course.
That ought to be enough to make it nine straight wins over the Cougars when they meet on Thursday.
This doesn’t mean the Utes should take BYU lightly. A dismissive attitude will get them nowhere. But they should avoid worrying about “what if” scenarios. A better approach would be to turn it into mano a mano combat. With one or two possible exceptions (offensive line? quarterback?), there’s no clear advantage for BYU.
The smart money is on the No. 14-ranked Utes. That’s not just a guess. Recruiting comparisons aren’t all that close. Overall depth plays in Utah’s favor, too.
“We understand where they are at and the predictions for them,” BYU coach Kalani Sitake said. Utah is picked to win the Pac-12. “There is a lot of excitement going on about that team. So we are just excited to see how we match up against them.”
Answer: not well.
BYU’s record against Power 5 schools the last four years is 6-14. Utah went 23-17 versus P5 teams in the same span. (In fairness, BYU was 5-5 against P5 schools the two prior years; Utah 8-11).
But against the one power team the Cougars most care about, they’re 0-8 since 2011. There’s no arguing the games have virtually all been close. At the same time, none of the rivalry games was foremost in Utah’s mind. Too many conference worries for that. Yet the Utes won anyway. They could be distracted again, but it’s unlikely since it’s the season opener, and Utah’s next two opponents are Northern Illinois and Idaho State.
No, the Utes aren’t likely to look past BYU.
If they show up and play their guts out, the outcome should be academic.
Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said “the team that makes the fewest mistakes typically is going to win.”
Typically the team with the most speed, size and athleticism wins, too.
Random illustrative point: BYU’s starting strong safety transferred because he couldn’t get playing time at Utah.
“It is a different kind of mindset and you have to continue to work hard and not think you have all of the answers. You have to be able to do what got you there and not get comfortable with what you have accomplished, because we have a lot more we want to get accomplished,” Whittingham said.
Realistically there are several ways for Utah to win; fewer for BYU. Utah’s scenarios are:
The ferocious defensive line neutralizes BYU’s running game and pressures Zach Wilson into crucial mistakes.
The fleet defensive backfield shuts down BYU’s receivers.
Zack Moss, heading toward becoming Utah’s all-time rushing leader, makes a land grab.
Utah displays a better than mediocre passing game.
Britain Covey shines in the return to his hometown.
Francis Bernard stars at his former school.
BYU realizes it is overmatched.
The Utes recognize they can impose their will.
Actually, all the above scenarios are likely to happen.
BYU’s winning scenarios: Wilson goes a Potato Bowlish 18-for-18, or the Utes commit 18 turnovers.
Utah won’t say it out loud, but it considers itself far superior. So do the pollsters. But every team believes in its heart that it will win. The bigger challenge is to win in the head.
Unlike some years, there really is something on the line when the Utes play BYU: a shot at the College Football Playoff.
If that doesn’t motivate them, they deserve the fallout.
Someone asked Whittingham this week about what the defensive line needs to focus on against the Cougars. His answer: “Just play their game.”
If everyone does that, it will be enough.