Don’t you love these made-for-TV events that we call the college football bowl season? Utah, a team that went 9-3 in a difficult Pac-12, falls to the sixth bowl selection and the Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl to face rival BYU. I can already feel the nastiness in the air.
BYU and Utah is a rivalry that many outside of the Wasatch Front footprint might not understand how nasty this thing is between the two fan bases, even if it is called the “Holy War” by some. Utah fans were disappointed to play in the same bowl they did a year ago (defeated Colorado State) and they were upset to play a BYU team they will be facing again in week two of the 2016 season. Remember folks, there was a time when we all had Utah as a College Football Playoff team, and to end in Vegas was initially disappointing for the Utes.
BYU fans on the other hand are thrilled at the chance to snap the four-game rivalry skid to the Utes on a neutral field. But many wonder about the effort and the attitude amongst the team with Cougars head coach Bronco Mendenhall announcing this would be his final game as he and many of his staff are headed to Virginia to take over the Cavaliers program.
So to recap this game features: a Holy War in Sin City, Mendenhall’s final game, Utah shooting for five straight wins in the rivalry, and two passionate fan bases that hate each other. Put it all together and now you know why that outside of the Playoff and New Year’s Six this game has been one of the hottest tickets in the bowl season.
BYU vs. Utah (Las Vegas)
Kickoff: 3:30 p.m. ET (Saturday)
Spread: Utah -2.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Bronco vs. Whitt: The Final Chapter
In December 2004, after forcing Gary Crowton into resigning as head coach, BYU turned to former Cougar linebacker and Utah defensive coordinator Kyle Whittingham to become the head coach at his alma mater. Whittingham turned down the offer and stayed at rival Utah following in the footsteps of Urban Meyer. Bronco Mendenhall -the third choice for BYU- ended up getting the job in Provo, which led to both fan bases measuring the two head coaches every step of the way.
Whittingham has the upper hand on Mendenhall, winning six of the nine Holy War meetings between the two.
With Mendenhall now leaving for Virginia, it’s an end of a storied rivalry chapter between these two schools. BYU players this week have been saying all the right things to give one final win to Mendenhall, and his 100th overall at BYU, before he goes off to Charlottesville. But no one has schemed better against the Cougars soon-to-be former head coach than Whittingham.
2. Will Britain Covey play?
Covey has been one of Utah’s best playmakers this season despite being a true freshman. Once you look past his tiny 5-foot-8 frame, Covey has been one of the more dynamic players in the Pac-12, and one of the best freshmen in a conference that boasts UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen.
Covey’s playmaking abilities are in question however for Saturday’s Vegas Bowl as he suffered an ankle injury in a loss to UCLA a month ago. If this bowl game were played after Christmas, it would be nearly a guarantee that Covey would play. But with the early date, Covey’s status is up in the air. Covey is critical to this Utah offense, both as a wide receiver and a return specialist, which was stagnant the last few weeks of the regular season
There also is some strong emotion in this matchup for Covey, as he grew up in Provo in the shadows of BYU at Timpview High. BYU, the school that has seen many of Covey’s family members attend, didn’t offer the ex-high school quarterback until late in the recruiting process. Whittingham and the Utes offered early, and the rest is history.
3. BYU Wide Receivers vs. Utah Secondary
BYU quarterback Tanner Mangum has had a fantastic season, throwing for more than 3,000 yards in a year that he was expected to be the backup to do-it-all signal-caller Taysom Hill. Mangum has done a great job but Utah’s defense might be one of the toughest BYU’s offense has faced this season. But the Utes are running thin in the secondary with a laundry list worth of injuries. That’s good news for Mangum and his wide receiver corps.
BYU boasts five players who have recorded over 400-plus yards receiving -the first time in school history- and they are a talented group led by senior Mitch Mathews. It’s well documented the height BYU has in their receivers with Mathews (6-6), Terenn Houk (6-5), and Nick Kurtz (6-6). To counter the size look for Utah cornerback Brian Allen to get more snaps over Dominique Hatfield, who has struggled at times this season.
Whenever you talk Holy War games between BYU and Utah, focus on two things: 1) line of scrimmage play and 2) turnovers. They are cliché keys to watch, but nothing holds truer to these two teams, which always have games that go down to the wire. In the last 21 years, 14 of these Holy War games have been decided by seven points or less. I’d expect nothing different in this one with Utah having the edge, as BYU has been minus-21 in the turnover department in its last four losses to the Utes. Utah wins a close one in the city of sin, and sends Bronco Mendenhall packing to Virginia as the first BYU head coach to lose five straight to the Utes since the early 1930s.
Prediction: Utah 27, BYU 20
— Written by Mitch Harper, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Harper is the BYU reporter and insider for 1320 KFAN and co-host of "The Cougar Center" podcast. Follow him on Twitter @Mitch_Harper.