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BYU and Utah not playing every year doesn’t compute

Utah is hardly the only Power Five team that schedules FCS opponents, but not playing BYU annually isn’t right

BYU receiver Gunner Romney (18) catches a pass from quarterback Zach Wilson while defended by Utah defensive back Jaylon Johnson.
BYU wide receiver Gunner Romney hauls in a pass while being defended by Utah defensive back Jaylon Johnson during game at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Thursday, Aug. 29, 2019.
Colter Peterson, Deseret News

The BYU-Utah rivalry game is back after a one-year break that was forced by the pandemic. There is no sporting event in Utah that is anticipated more than this showdown. Too bad it’s going away for a while. The Utes and Cougars aren’t scheduled to play again until 2024.

Here we go again. This is a tired subject, one that keeps resurfacing because of wrongheaded thinking on the Hill. Picking up where his predecessor left off, Utah athletic director Mark Harlan has tried to justify why the Utes aren’t playing the Cougars the next two seasons.

“We play nine conference games, which is more than some conferences. You’ve got to figure all those are going to be battles,” Harlan told the Deseret News earlier this year. “We play BYU, but some years we might take a year or two off. In general, I would like to see another premier opponent when we can that matches up and makes sense to complement that overall philosophy.”

Chris Hill, the school’s previous AD, came more to the point in 2012, when the Utes decided to not schedule football games with BYU in 2014 and 2015. Hill reasoned that it was too much to play the Cougars when they had scheduled Michigan those years.

“What we have to do is make sure we don’t come close to overscheduling,” Hill told the Salt Lake Tribune at the time. “I can’t expect us to play 11 really, really difficult games in a season.”

Why not? This presupposes that the Utes even have 11 “really, really difficult games.” More on this later.

It’s a long-accepted practice in college football of course. The Utes — and almost everyone else in the FBS ranks — suffer from what they call risk aversion in the finance world. To avoid a potential loss, they look for a team that will mean a sure win. We all know this.

Harlan’s “overall philosophy” is to take periodic breaks from games with the Cougars while also making room on the schedule to play FCS schools. Instead of playing BYU the next two seasons, Utah will play Southern Utah in 2022 and Weber State in 2023, both of them FCS schools. In the last 14 years the Utes have played 10 FCS opponents and won by a combined score of 404-95, including three shutouts — an average score of 40.4 to 9.5. Their victims were Northern Colorado, Weber State, Idaho State, Southern Utah and North Dakota.

Almost all the Power Five schools do the same thing, which doesn’t make it any more palatable. According to a recent report by Forbes, only 15 of the 130 FBS schools will not play an FCS opponent this season. The report noted that Notre Dame, UCLA and USC are the only programs that have not played an FCS school since Division I was split into I-A (now FBS) and I-AA (now FCS) in 1978. FCS schools are becoming better and better, but they’re still no match for the FBS; only five times has an FCS school beat a ranked FBS school.

It’s such a routine practice that no one even questions it anymore. They believe 11-12 games against good opponents is too much; meanwhile, the NFL plays 17 regular-season games, three preseason games, plus playoffs.

Do season ticket holders really want to see the Utes beat Weber State 70-7 (2013) or Northern Colorado 41-0 (2012)?

At this point, you’d think the Utes would want annual dates with the Cougars, a team they’ve beaten nine consecutive times. Well, the series has always gone through periods of dominance by one side or the other. The Cougars won 21 of 23 meetings from 1972 to 1992 and was a regular member of the top 20, while the Utes were a .500 team.

The Cougars are still a threat for risk-averse ADs. (By the way, the Cougars never considered dumping the Utes from their schedule when they were dominating the series.) BYU is a Power Five school in all but name; all five Power Five conferences officially count BYU as a Power Five school in scheduling, even though the school was an independent. It’s unfortunate for fans of both schools that the Cougars and Utes couldn’t meet last year when BYU won 11 of 12 games.

Check any list of the nation’s top college football rivalries and BYU-Utah will be included. Athlon ranked it No. 14 last year on its list of the country’s top 25 rivalries. The rivalry is not nearly as intense in basketball, but don’t mess with it. In 2016, Utah basketball coach Larry Krystkowiak launched a huge controversy when he decided to cancel the BYU-Utah series the following year. Ask Hill, Utah’s athletic director at the time, how that went. He had a word for it that can’t be printed. It wound up going all the way up to the legislature and the governor’s office.

Back to football: Even the argument that Utah has 11 difficult games as members of the Pac-12 doesn’t pass the smell test. The Pac-12 has several soft teams in its ranks — Oregon State (seven straight losing seasons), Colorado (two winning seasons in 15 years), Washington State (four winning seasons in 17 years), Cal (four winning seasons in 11 years).

The bottom line: ADs shouldn’t dumb down their schedules to prop up their ranking by avoiding challenging matchups, especially rivalries

“It’s up there with the best rivalries in all of college football,” Ute linebacker Devin Lloyd said recently.

That rivalry will be suspended for two years.