SALT LAKE CITY — Four games into the college football season, the gap between BYU and Utah football appeared to be rapidly shrinking. BYU was sitting at 3-1 and had found themselves nationally ranked after beating Arizona and sixth-seeded Wisconsin on the road to open the season.
New offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes had BYU’s offense operating in a manner that appeared to negate the athletic deficiencies that seemed apparent for last year’s Cougar team.
Meanwhile, the Utes started the season slow with two rather uninspiring victories over Weber State and Northern Illinois. Utah then started Pac-12 play with losses to Washington and Washington State and had only scored a combined 48 points against the FBS opponents, despite rolling out one of the best defenses.
In short, it felt like a typical Utah season in the Pac-12 — good enough to compete for the South, but not complete enough to win enough games to be crowned division champions.
Then the two teams fortunes changed.
Since Week 4, Utah has gone on a four-game winning streak, scoring 40 or more points in each outing and an average margin of victory just shy of 24 points. That includes wins on the road at No. 16 Stanford and a win over defending South champion USC.
Utah’s quarterback Tyler Huntley has thrown seven touchdowns and just two interceptions, while running back Zack Moss has eclipsed the century mark in rushing yards in three of the four outings. Moss is averaging more than 140 yards per game.
Simply put, the Utes have been purely dominant, resulting in a No. 16 ranking in both the Assocaited Press and USA Today Amway Coaches Poll. Utah isn’t just playing like a team that can finally win the South, they might be real contenders to win the Pac-12 overall.
BYU, on the other hand, has once again fallen on hard times. Since Week 4, the Cougars have dropped three of their last four games and have fallen to a 4-4 record.
Blowout losses to Washington and in-state rival Utah State forced BYU to move on from senior quarterback Tanner Mangum, opting to start true freshman Zach Wilson each of the last two weeks. Though Wilson has been impressive in each of the last two weeks, a win over Hawaii and a loss to Northern Illinois, his play alone hasn’t solved BYU’s offensive shortcomings.
Now, after a promising start, BYU is looking ahead to a difficult schedule, including bookend games of the season on the road at Boise State and Utah, and a road game at UMass and a home game against New Mexico State in the middle.
The good news for BYU, having already won four games, if they can win the games they are projected to win by ESPN’s Football Power Index — UMass and New Mexico State — they will qualify for a bowl game before facing Utah.
The bad news, a two-game improvement over last year’s BYU team and bowl eligibility isn’t enough to keep pace with an improved Utah team, pending the Utes keep up their current hot streak.
If Utah were to win the Pac-12 South title, much less a Pac-12 championship, the Utes will have captured the one thing BYU can’t as long as they remain an independent team, and that’s a conference title.
The redeeming factor for BYU, though, is that despite the growing disparity between the two programs, the Cougars can quiet that narrative at the season’s end. As unlikely as Utah’s recent hot streak has been, or as surprising as BYU’s start of the season was, the unexpected is common in college football.
And though Utah will likely be a heavy favorite when they face BYU on Week 12, perhaps with a Pac-12 South title already in hand, BYU can halt Utah’s momentum, or at least slow it down, in what should be another intriguing rivalry game.
Ben Anderson is a contributor at KSL.com, follow him on Twitter @BensHoops. Listen to him 2-6, Monday through Friday with Kyle Gunther on ESPN 700.