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SALT LAKE CITY — Watching Oregon squeak out a victory over Arizona State Saturday, Utah clinched the Pac-12 South title and secured an invitation to the Pac-12 Championship game. It's something Utah has never accomplished since joining the conference.
But before the Utes take on either Washington or Washington State — the opponent will be decided Friday night in the Apple Cup at Washington State — the Utes will play their rival, the BYU Cougars, Saturday at Rice-Eccles Stadium.
The game comes at a peculiar time, with the Utes having already wrapped up the South. And already short bodies, having lost starting quarterback Tyler Huntley and star running back Zack Moss, the Utes can’t afford to lose any further talent and still hope to have a realistic shot against either Washington schools, both Top 25 teams.
At the same time, BYU has long served as Utah’s primary rival, and a victory over the Cougars has been the bellwether of continued growth in the program. Should Kyle Whittingham rest his best players to better prepare for a bigger prize?
While Whittingham didn’t directly answer whether he would rest his players, he did offer the following sentiment Monday: “I don't know how you sell that to your players, saying 'hey, we are going to sit everybody and not give you a chance to finish the season,' in particular the seniors.”
It’s safe to assume Whittingham will at least prepare his team to battle BYU like it’s any other week.
Despite many legacy-building accomplishments as head coach at Utah, including an undefeated season capped off by a Sugar Bowl win over Alabama and a National Coach of the Year award, Whittingham’s dominance over BYU may be his most signature achievement in state.
The Utes have won seven straight rivalry games, and nine of the last 12 since Whittingham took over the program. It’s the most significant shift in the rivalry since LaVell Edwards was named head coach at BYU in 1972.
With Whittingham entering the twilight of his career at Utah, finishing on perhaps a decade-long streak over its primary rival could be the crown jewel in his coaching legacy.
Utah has made the jump to the Pac-12, and as a result, BYU decided to leave the Mountain West Conference to compete with Utah financially. But while Utah has had a conference title chase to pursue, BYU has had fewer measuring sticks for which to judge a successful season, short of bowl eligibility, it's been a Top 25 ranking and the rivalry itself.
Whittingham’s success over the Cougars has made sure that BYU can only achieve two of those three things each season since 2010.
BYU is not the biggest game remaining on Utah’s schedule this year, with a significantly more important game the following Friday as the Utes look to capture their first conference title.
Due to the extra game, there is legitimacy to the question of whether the Utes should rest their starters. But while the Utes may be focused on the bigger picture of a conference championship, they can’t overlook their biggest rival. The Utes are in the midst of a magical season, and winning the Pac-12 title would be the cherry on top, but failing to take BYU seriously in the final week of the regular season would be a mistake.