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SALT LAKE CITY — The in-state rivalry game with the most story lines this season won’t be the game you think it is.
Utah and BYU aren’t playing this season or next, so it won’t be them. BYU and Utah State have developed a stronger rivalry over the past few seasons, with close games and bitter feelings developing between the two programs. However, the annual conference weekend battle won’t feature the best story lines.
Instead, the state’s two FCS teams — Weber State and Southern Utah — will have the best story lines of almost any game played by in-state teams this season. From top to bottom, the game features an interesting subplot at nearly every spot on the roster, and it figures to be another battle when the two teams meet Sept. 27 in Cedar City.
Again, with so many story lines, it is tough to decide the best one. However, five story lines stand out immediately.
1. Last season’s Southern Utah coordinators are now at Weber
Players love to play against coaches who have left their program, and Weber State will have to guard against that issue. Shortly after the Wildcats hired Jay Hill from Utah, Hill hired SUU offensive coordinator Steve Clark, SUU defensive coordinator Justin Ena and SUU receivers coach Fesi Sitake. The three coaches helped SUU coach Ed Lamb lead the Thunderbirds to their first-ever berth in the FCS playoffs, and helped establish a winning culture in Cedar City.
Weber has a bit of an advantage, especially defensively, as the coaches know the personnel. However, the T-Birds’ motivation to beat former coaches looms in the distance, and the extra motivation could be a problem for the Wildcats on the road.
2. Former BYU coaches vs. former Utah coaches
Fans crave any comparison between BYU and Utah, and this rivalry features several coaching/playing alumni of both institutions. The biggest name on either side is Clark’s replacement, former BYU coach Gary Crowton. So far, Southern Utah’s offense is averaging 13 points a game under Crowton.
Other connections include Clark, who coached at both schools; Hill, who played and coached at Utah; Ena, who played at BYU; and SUU coach Ed Lamb, who coached at BYU under Crowton. The BYU-Utah rivalry is fiery, and the hope is this rivalry can become an FCS version of it.
Southern Utah is Crowton’s first stop in Utah since he left BYU, and his hiring gave the Thunderbirds’ program some much needed name value.
3. Both teams’ quarterbacks played at BYU last season
Last season, Weber State quarterback Billy Green and Southern Utah quarterback Ammon Olsen sat behind BYU quarterback Taysom Hill, as Hill established his spot as the permanent starter in Provo. Both transferred away, and both former teammates will face each other as conference foes. Green has thrown for 773 yards and two touchdowns in a Wildcats uniform, while Olsen has thrown three touchdowns in limited action.
Both competed as teammates; now, they can face off as competitors.
4. The two teams have split the last two games
Two seasons ago, Weber beat Southern Utah in Cedar City to end the Thunderbirds’ hopes of qualifying for the FCS playoffs. Last season, Weber State held a fourth-quarter lead against the Thunderbirds, but SUU came back to win the game late. The win likely clinched an FCS playoff berth while also sealing former Weber coach Jody Sears’ fate.
As BYU and Utah fans can attest, the rivalry between the teams was lackluster during the 1980s, when the Cougars dominated the rivalry. However, after former Utah coach Ron McBride began to regularly beat BYU, the rivalry’s intensity quickly heated up. Look for the recent parity in the Weber-SUU rivalry to do the same.
5. Both teams are recruiting foes
Every team recruits against every team in college football. However, these two teams compete against each other with virtually every recruit. Utah is chock full of quality FCS products, and Weber and SUU want those players. Also, they want players that drop down from the next level. A win for either program signifies they have the better situation for the upcoming season; giving them the edge with recruits. Recruiting is the name of the game in college football, and a win in this game gives the victors a definite edge.