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SALT LAKE CITY — It’s that time of year, when the football coach has to play his alma mater but is not all that excited about doing it.
Don’t expect coach Kyle Whittingham or his assistants to publicly voice any displeasure about having to play BYU. But trust us on this, it’s true.
Depending on the viewpoint, they have valid reasons. The state of the two programs lead to the conclusion the Utes get nothing out playing the game, which has been a part of the state’s sports fabric for generations.
But nothing lasts forever.
For now, the Holy War — as it has been nicknamed — is scheduled for home-and-home through the 2022 season. This year’s game, in a departure from the norm since BYU went independent and Utah joined the Pac-12, finishes the regular season for both teams.
One of the arguments — if you agree with it — against the BYU series involves putting Utah in a no-win situation. Having won seven consecutive games, dating back to when both teams left the Mountain West, the Utes don’t get much for beating BYU again.
The Cougars will eventually break the streak, leaving to backlash against the Utes for losing to a team they are supposed to beat. Either way, there’s no upside for Utah.
For several decades, the series offered great significance to Utah in trying to validate a successful season. In today’s world, Whittingham prefers to look at it has nothing more than a non-conference game. In most cases, the nine conference games on the yearly Pac-12 schedule are more important to achieve Utah’s annual goals.
In the press conference after the Utes beat Colorado last week, Whittingham dismissed a reporter’s question about redshirt freshman quarterback Jason Shelley playing in his first rivalry game. He noted Shelley had already won twice in his first two starts against Pac-12 opponents.
“He’s been in Pac-12 games. So why would he not be ready?” Whittingham said. “We’re in the Pac-12 Conference. That’s our primary objective. It’s Pac-12 Conference play.”
And don’t overlook the emotional aspect the game has on both teams, particularly when Utah has a conference game the following week. From 2011-13, the Utes beat BYU in September and then lost a Pac-12 game the week after.
After not scheduling BYU in the regular season in 2014-15 (they did play in the 2015 Las Vegas Bowl), Utah got smart and scheduled a win the last two years. Utah beat BYU in close games the last two Septembers and then hammered hapless San Jose State in the next game.
This week’s game presents a one-of-a-kind dilemma for Utah, which already clinched the South Division. The Utes will play in the Pac-12 Championship — far more important than any non-conference game — six days after the BYU game.
True to his nature, Whittingham rejects the notion of resting his starters against BYU in preparation for next week’s game with either Washington State or Washington, two of the three conference teams to beat Utah this season. A Utah win next week would merit a bid to play in the Rose Bowl.
But losing this week would boost a somewhat stagnant BYU program, something Whittingham has no interest in doing. Even though he is an alumnus, having starred as a linebacker there back in the program’s glory days, the former linebacker can barely bring himself to call the school by name.
“As far as that strategy (of resting players), thoroughbred horses love to run,” he said. “They are born to run and that is what they enjoy. Our players are warriors. They were born to compete and they want to play. I don’t know how you sell that to your players. Saying we are going to sit everyone and not let you have a chance to finish the season, particularly the seniors ... that is a tough sell.
“There are definite pros and cons on both sides of the argument, but I just don’t know how with the mentality of our players that you can do that.”