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Utah Utes vs. BYU Cougars Preview and Prediction

Kyle Whittingham

Kyle Whittingham

Kalani Sitake College Football

Utah and BYU. In the state of Utah, there is no bigger sporting event than when these two heated rivals square off for their annual renewal of one of college football’s most intense rivalries.

If social media is anywhere close to a gauge of how the fans interact with one another, this rivalry has not simmered down at all since the two programs left the Mountain West Conference for greener pastures in the Pac-12 and Independence, respectively.

The Utes have won the last six games in the rivalry, with five of those being decided by a touchdown or less.

For BYU, this game has been a thorn in the Cougars' side. In their six seasons as an independent, the Cougars have yet to take down the Utes. The Cougars are coming into this one with more questions than answers after two weeks of games. There’s no better remedy for the Cougars to bounce back from a 27-0 shellacking at the hands of LSU than to beat their rival.

On the Utah side, the Utes are looking to continue their dominance over BYU and their excellent non-conference play. The Utes haven’t lost a non-conference game since a trip to Logan against in-state foe Utah State in 2012. Outside of BYU and a pair of games against Michigan in 2014 and '15, there haven’t been many games to get excited about in Utah AD Chris Hill’s “A-B-C” scheduling method, but the approach has led to success — Utah is one of only four programs that can claim it has appeared in every College Football Playoff top 25 ranking since their introduction in the 2014 season.

No one around the Beehive State this week would tell you that BYU and Utah isn’t an “A-grade” game, and this one should be as physical as any to ever be played in rivalry history.

Utah at BYU

Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 9 at 10:15 p.m. ET

TV Channel: ESPN2

Spread: Utah -1

Three Things to Watch

1. Kalani Sitake vs. Kyle Whittingham II

Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham is 8-3 against his alma mater, BYU. Whittingham built plenty of good will in his time with the Utes by winning bowl games and always taking down his rival.

There was no love lost between Whittingham and former BYU head coach Bronco Mendenhall, who is now at Virginia. Whittingham has said that the rivalry has taken a different tone for him since second-year head coach Kalani Sitake took the job.

The two are friends — they play golf with one another in the offseason — but they desperately want to beat each other. Sitake coached on Whittingham’s defensive staff for a decade and was Whitt’s defensive coordinator for six years, including the early years transitioning from the Mountain West to the Pac-12.

2. Will BYU’s offense find its identity against Utah?

Sitake has not sugarcoated the struggles his team experienced against LSU in the Superdome. He made it clear this week that the Cougar offense needs to fix their issues now so they can never have another performance like they did last weekend. The problem is that Utah presents another talented defense that is tough to move the ball against.

For BYU, running the football has been an issue. Life after Jamaal Williams has been much more difficult than anyone around the BYU program imagined. But a spark to the backfield could be on the way in form of true freshman running back Ula Tolutau. Tolutau, a former Wisconsin signee, is as close as ever to being 100 percent healthy and is expected to get some carries this week against his hometown Utes (Tolutau played in the shadows of the school at nearby East High School in Salt Lake City).

Tanner Mangum needs to find the same confidence and gunslinger mentality that made him the talk of the nation two years ago after legendary wins over Nebraska and Boise State.

3. Tyler Huntley’s first road start

First-year Utah offensive coordinator Troy Taylor shocked everyone in the Salt Lake media by announcing that he was giving the starting quarterback nod to Huntley, just a sophomore, over senior captain Troy Williams.

Huntley was a player of the year in the state of Florida coming out of the 2016 recruiting class.

Last week, Huntley threw for 227 yards and had a 72 percent completion rate against North Dakota from the FCS ranks.

Will the stage be too big for Huntley in his first road start? Provo can be a loud atmosphere, and BYU’s front seven is better equipped than in years past to match up against the Utes offense.

Final Analysis

This is going to be a street fight-type of game this Saturday night. Make sure to stay up late and watch this one to experience one of the best rivalries the country has to offer.

NCAAF Top 25 Rankings: Utah

BYU’s offense is in trouble. The Cougars lack and identity and they have zero proven playmakers right now. That’s not a recipe for success against a Utah defense that in the trenches can rotate eight or nine guys without any drop-off.

For all the talk about the talent gap widening in this rivalry, these games always go down to the wire, and I expect nothing less in this one. My prediction is that Utah scores a late touchdown in the fourth quarter to seal the victory.

Prediction: Utah 16, BYU 9

— Written by Mitch Harper, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Harper is BYU Insider for ESPN 960 Sports and Publisher of Cougar Nation, part of the Rivals network. Follow him on Twitter @Mitch_Harper.