In what will be a milestone for the school and state, the University of Utah will meet Ohio State in the iconic Rose Bowl Saturday afternoon (that is assuming it doesn’t get cancelled due to COVID-19). It is one of the biggest games in the history of the state, but how does it rank against some of the other games played by the state’s FBS schools — Utah, BYU and Utah State? Let’s define “big game” as those in which the local team had a lot on the line — a high ranking or a national championship. The 1980 Holiday Bowl, for instance, is a legendary game because of BYU’s famous comeback, but the team was ranked “only” 14th at the time (11th afterward). So, here’s a list of the top 10 biggest games:

1. BYU vs. Michigan, 1984 Holiday Bowl

BYU quarterback Robbie Bosco celebrates with his team after winning the Holiday Bowl in San Diego on Dec. 21, 1984. | Ravell Call, Deseret News

The game became the de facto national championship when unbeaten BYU found itself promoted to No. 1 at the conclusion of the regular season thanks to a series of timely losses by traditional powers week by week. It ignited a national controversy because many didn’t believe their schedule warranted their No. 1 ranking. It didn’t help that BYU drew a match against unranked, 6-5 Michigan, but the Cougars were stuck with a second-tier bowl and opponent because of contractual obligations.

As the game unfolded, BYU committed six turnovers and quarterback Robbie Bosco left the game with a knee injury, only to return to the field in the second quarter. Limping the rest of the game, he threw two touchdown passes in the fourth quarter, the last one with 1:23 left in the game, to rally the Cougars to a 24-17 win and the national championship. LaVell Edwards was named Coach of the Year.

2. Utah vs. Alabama, 2009 Sugar Bowl

Utah fans celebrate going 13-0 after beating Alabama in the 2009 Allstate Sugar Bowl, at the Superdome, in New Orleans. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Utah finished the 2008 regular season with a 12-0 record and a No. 6 ranking; Alabama was 12-1 and ranked No. 4. Nobody — least of all the Alabama team — expected Utah to prevail. The Utes didn’t just win, they manhandled Alabama 31-17. Both their game plan and the execution of that game plan were as good as you will ever see in a college football game. The Utes finished No. 2 in the final AP rankings behind Florida, which was led by former Utah coach Urban Meyer. His successor, Kyle Whittingham, was voted Coach of the Year.

3. Utah vs. Pitt, 2005 Fiesta Bowl

Morgan Scalley, Sione Pouha and Alex Smith celebrate the Utes victory over Pitt in the 2005 Fiesta Bowl in Tempe, Ariz., Jan 1, 2005. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Pitt was ranked 19th by AP with an 8-3 record; the Utes were 11-0 and ranked No. 5 in AP, No. 4 in the BCS poll. Utah made a little history by becoming the first team to appear in a BCS Bowl that did not come from a conference with an automatic qualifier. It was the equivalent of what Cincinnati did this year in becoming the first team to qualify for the national playoff that isn’t from a Power Five Conference. The Utes, led by quarterback Alex Smith, the future No. 1 overall pick of the 2005 NFL draft, clobbered the Panthers 35-7. Utah finished No. 4 in the final rankings behind USC, Auburn and Oklahoma. Urban Meyer, coaching his last game at Utah, was voted Coach of the Year.

4. BYU vs. Kansas State, 1997 Cotton Bowl

BYU’s James Dye looks for daylight against Kansas State in the 1997 Cotton Bowl. | Mark Philbrick, BYU Photo

BYU was 13-1 and ranked No. 5 in the polls, Kansas State was 9-1 and No. 14. Down 15-5 in the fourth quarterback, BYU rallied to win the game 19-15 with Steve Sarkisian throwing two touchdown passes. BYU did not advance in the polls and finished as the nation’s No. 5 team.

5. BYU vs. Missouri, 1983 Holiday Bowl

Steve Young celebrates in the end zone after scoring the game-winning touchdown to beat Missouri in the 1983 Holiday Bowl. | Mark Philbrick, BYU Photo

BYU, 10-1, was ranked No. 9 and was led by future NFL Hall of Fame quarterback Steve Young; once again, because of a contractual obligation, the Cougars were stuck with an inferior bowl and opponent, 7-4 Missouri. Nevertheless, the game went to the wire, and BYU escaped with a win on a trick play with 23 seconds left on the clock — QB Young caught a touchdown pass from running back Eddie Stinnett that barely cleared the outstretched hand of a defender. BYU finished seventh in the final rankings.

6. Utah vs. Ohio State, 2022 Rose Bowl

After falling out of the rankings for three weeks, the 10-3 Utes clawed their way up to No. 10 in four weeks; Ohio State is No. 6 with a 10-2 record. The Utes won their first Pac-12 Conference championship by thumping Oregon — ranked as high as No. 4 — twice in two weeks. A win in the prestigious Rose Bowl will probably boost the Utes in the final rankings.

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7. Utah State vs. Baylor, 1961 Gotham Bowl

Never heard of this game or this bowl? The first Gotham Bowl, based in New York City, was played in 1961; the last one was played in 1962. The Aggies were 9-0-1 and ranked No. 10 in the final poll of the season heading into the game. Their only non-win was a 6-6 tie on the road against Wyoming. The average score of their 10 regular-season games was 39-8; only two opponents scored more than eight points. They faced an unranked 5-5 Baylor team in the Gotham Bowl — and lost 24-9. The Aggies wouldn’t appear in another bowl game for 32 years.

8. Utah vs. Arizona, 1994 Freedom Bowl

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The 10-2 Utes were ranked 13th, and the 8-3 Wildcats were 13th in the coaches poll. Utah gained just 75 yards total offense and punted the ball 10 times — and won 16-13. Cal Beck returned a kickoff 72 yards to the 5-yard line and Mike McCoy threw a fourth-down touchdown pass to Kevin Dyson with 3 ½ minutes left to pull out the win. The Utes were ranked No. 8 in the final coaches poll, No. 10 in AP — easily the highest rankings in school history to that point (it wouldn’t be surpassed for 10 years).

9. BYU vs. Indiana, 1979 Holiday Bowl

BYU was 11-0 and ranked ninth — and, just as they would be in future years, the Cougars were stuck with an unranked, 7-4 opponent, this time Indiana. The teams traded the lead from start to finish. Trailing 38-37 with seven seconds left in the game, the Cougars attempted a 27-yard field goal for the win — and missed. BYU was 12th and 13th in the two final national polls — the school’s highest rankings ever at that point.

10. BYU vs. Ohio State, 1985 Citrus Bowl

A year after winning the national title, BYU was 11-2 and rebounding from one of the most embarrassing losses in college football history (to UTEP), along with a 3-point loss to UCLA. The Cougars had climbed back to No. 9 in the polls to face 8-3, 16th-ranked OSU, which was one year removed from the Rose Bowl. The game offered BYU an opportunity to climb into the top five. It was supposed to be a high-scoring contest; it was not. Quarterback Robbie Bosco’s shoulder/arm had been compromised all season by an injury that nobody acknowledged at the time. He threw four interceptions and BYU lost 10-7. The Cougars finished 16th/17th in the final rankings.

Correction: The original version of this story stated that Michigan was 7-4 before the 1984 Holiday Bowl. The Wolverines were 6-5 that year.

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