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CEDAR CITY — The conference shake-ups of the last few years in college sports didn’t only affect the big boys.
FCS teams moved conferences as well, and Southern Utah made a long-anticipated move from the Great West Conference to the Big Sky Conference. The day the Thunderbirds arrived in the Big Sky, Weber State finally received an in-state conference rival to match up against.
And, as the schools’ football teams prepare for their third conference game Saturday at Eccles Coliseum in Cedar City, casual football fans are learning this game is indeed a rivalry game.
Rivalry games are built by similar teams and features those teams jockeying for position. Southern Utah coach Ed Lamb said his program has a great deal of admiration for the Weber program.
“Rivalries are built on mutual respect,” said Lamb, who is entering his seventh season as the coach of the Thunderbirds. “In any quality rivalry, there’s back and forth; there’s got to be wins on both sides. There’s familiarity with our players playing against each other in high school; there’s familiarity with the coaching staffs.
“There’s a respect and an admiration for how things are done. The Weber State staff is a class group of guys that are doing things the right way, and I believe they believe the same about us.”
Both Southern Utah and Weber State are unique programs in Utah for several reasons: they play in smaller cities; they are FCS not FBS; and their recruiting base is mainly composed of in-state players. One of the other differences is an advantage for the schools, as FBS players can transfer down to the school and play immediately.
Weber State quarterback Billy Green and Southern Utah quarterback Ammon Olsen know what it’s like to be an FBS prospect, but never get the opportunity they’re looking for. Both Green and Olsen played at BYU last season and were backups to Heisman Trophy candidate Taysom Hill. Neither got the opportunity they wanted in Provo, so they transferred to the state’s FCS schools.
Now, the former roommates will face each other as opposing starting quarterbacks. Green said he has the utmost respect for Olsen.
“It’s kind of cool I get to play against him,” he said. “When I got to BYU, he really welcomed me and helped me out. He was really a great guy and a great mentor to me. He kind of showed me the ropes.”
The respect isn’t one-sided, nor is the understanding of how important a victory is for either team. Weber State coach Jay Hill experienced the state’s most widely known rivalry when he played and coached for the University of Utah in its in-state rivalries with BYU and Utah State.
"The Weber State staff is a class group of guys that are doing things the right way, and I believe they believe the same about us," SUU coach Ed Lamb said.
Hill said rivalries differentiate the college game from other sports.
“I think college football is about rivalries,” he said. “You want games where players look forward, where fans know to look forward to it. It’s a (regional) rivalry, where you’re separated just a few hours up and down the road. (Rivalries are) what college football is all about.
“I’m excited there’s a little something behind this game, where we’ve got a few coaches that were at Southern Utah, but it’s bigger than that. The players know it, the fans know it, and I know. It’s an in-state rivalry, so I’m excited for this game.”
Weber State defensive tackle Connor Myers said a victory is important to the players because the rivalry is so personal with them, especially after the Thunderbirds beat the Wildcats at Stewart Stadium last season.
“They won here, and each team’s won back and forth,” said Myers, who is a team captain. “I think (this rivalry) has surpassed the rivalry with Idaho State in a lot of people’s minds. There’s a lot of hometown kids that go to Weber and SUU, so there’s a lot of interest in the state.”
Both teams need to win the game to get their first victory of the season, and Green said Weber has focused on bringing early intensity.
“We’ve just been talking about starting fast,” he said. "The last couple weeks, we’ve kind of struggled with that. Then, playing hard and being excited to play (our rival).”