Nobody seems to have noticed, but we just witnessed the greatest college football season in the history of the state. By far.
For the first time in the 99 years that all three schools have fielded football programs, Utah State, BYU and Utah all finished with double digits in the win column, with one game to still to play. They closed the regular season with 10 victories apiece and a combined record of 30-8.
The previous best combined record was 28-10 in 1996, with half of those wins coming courtesy of BYU. They also combined for 27 wins in both 2014 and 2018.
As for the 2021 season:
USU is 10-3 and champion of the Mountain West Conference.
Utah is 10-3 and champion of the Pac-12 Conference.
BYU is 10-2 and champion of … well, nothing. It’s the curse of independence.
This year marks only the ninth time in nearly a century of football that all three schools finished with winning records in the same season.
It also marks only the seventh time that all three schools are bowl bound. USU is headed to the L.A. Bowl; BYU to the Independence Bowl (the Cougars deserved better, but that’s a subject for another day); and Utah is headed to something called the Rose Bowl.
If Utah State can move up one place, it will mark the first time that all three schools have appeared in the top 25 of the final national rankings. Utah jumped to No. 10 in this week’s AP poll and BYU remained 12th. USU is listed 26th in the poll, the first school listed in “also receiving votes (109).”
For that matter, there has been only one other year (2018) in which all three schools appeared in the rankings at least one week during the season.
USU has been the weak link among the three schools over the years, but even if you ignore the Aggies for a moment, Utah and BYU have appeared in the final rankings together only three times — in 2009, 2008 and 1994.
As if to drive home the point, on Tuesday the three head coaches — Blake Anderson, Kyle Whittingham and Kalani Sitake — were named among the 13 finalists for the Eddie Robinson Coach of the Year Award.
To put all this in perspective, Utah began playing football in 1905, USU in 1912, BYU 1922. And they never came close to putting together a season like this in nearly 10 decades.
Only one state fared better this season than Utah, and if this were based on a per-capita rankings nobody would touch Utah’s Big Three, with three schools in the top 26 and a combined record of 30-8. Texas has four schools in the Top 25 — No. 6 Baylor, No. 21 Houston, No. 23 Texas A&M, No. 24 Texas-San Antonio; Michigan is represented by No. 2 Michigan and No. 11 Michigan State; North Carolina by No. 18 N.C. State and No. 20 Wake Forest; Oklahoma by No. 9 Oklahoma State and No. 14 Oklahoma; and Ohio by No. 4 Cincinnati and No. 7 Ohio State.
In 2012, Bleacher Report ranked states based on the success of their college football teams. Utah was 18th. The state has certainly improved its standing since then and this is despite facing a couple of big disadvantages. The state of Utah produces few blue-chip recruits and BYU, Utah and USU never appear in the annual rankings for recruiting classes (none appeared in the top 25 of the 2021 rankings produced by Sports Illustrated).
Yet for some reason, Utah and BYU have managed to build highly successful football programs, and during the last decade Utah State has clawed its way out of a decadeslong slump to make a name for itself.
The Big Three have a chance to add three more wins to their record at the end of the month and claim another bowl title, which would be a good way to cap a memorable season.
Best combined seasons for USU, BYU, Utah
Year — USU — BYU — Utah — Combined
2021 — 10-3 — 10-2 — 10-3 — 30-8
2019 — 7-6 — 7-6 — 11-3 — 25-15
2018 — 11-2 — 7-6 — 9-5 — 27-13
2014 — 10-4 — 8-5 — 9-4 — 27-13
2011 — 7-6 — 10-3 — 8-5 — 25-14
1996 — 6-5 — 14-1 — 8-4 — 28-10
1978 — 7-4 — 9-4 — 8-3 — 24-11
1972 — 8-3 — 7-4 — 6-5 — 21-12
1946 — 7-2-1 — 5-4-1 — 8-3 — 20-9-2