Estimated read time: 9-10 minutes
PROVO — BYU football has a lot of rivalries — or at least, a lot of teams that consider the Cougars to be their natural rivals — but Utah State strikes a different chord for the Cougars.
Theirs, after all, is the Cougars' only active rivalry with a trophy given to the winning team.
The Old Wagon Wheel will be at stake Friday night at Maverik Stadium in Logan (7 p.m. MT, CBS Sports Network), with the winner earning the spoils and the chance to roll it home for at least one more year.
And while players and coaches have different views, opinions and engagement levels with the rivalry, there is one thing they all know: don't try to lift the Wagon Wheel alone.
There's a reason why the most common photos of either team hoisting the 19th-century wooden wonder involve overly large individuals like offensive and defensive linemen.
"I wouldn't even want to try (to lift it)," said BYU safety Chaz Ah You, the 6-foot-2, 206-pound defensive back from Saratoga Springs. "I got a little glimpse of it in 2019, and that thing is heavier than it appears.
"It's a dense wagon wheel and heavier than most people would expect."
Ditto for Gunner Romney, the 6-foot-2, 195-pound wide receiver who looks like he's never skipped leg day, or arm day, or even a pre-workout protein shake.
"You're not lifting it by yourself, that's for sure," Romney said with a laugh. "It's pretty stocky. But I'm hoping to lift it up on the field with my teammates again this weekend."
The 15th-ranked Cougars have dominated the last 25 editions of the series, winning 20 of them in the rivalry that dates back to 1922.
And yes, it is a rivalry — even if the word can mean different things to different people. It may not be on the same level as Utah, and a regional rivalry with Boise State has been more competitive in recent years.
But it's still an in-state rivalry, with all the emotion, fervor and hate that goes into one.
"They are a rival," Romney said. "We want to go into their home field and get a win. But in the end, it's also another game to win. We look at games one week at a time, and this is the next game we have."
The Cougars hope to add their latest imprint on one of the few trophies in college football that rolls at roughly the same height as many of the players, and includes a rung of placards so long that both schools have had to post the latest update on the back of the wheel after the past five meetings.
But the Wagon Wheel that is well-associated with BYU-Utah State didn't always have a place in the game. For more than 20 years, Brigham Young University and the former Utah Agricultural College just played a game.
What is the Old Wagon Wheel?
BYU and Utah State first met on the football field in 1922, when the then-Utah Agricultural College rolled the Cougars 42-3 in what BYU considers to be the first college football game in school history. The Aggies didn't lose for the first seven years of the series, with one tie (Brigham Young Academy played a few football games as early as 1896, but the university considers the 1922 season as the official launch of the intercollegiate program).
In 1948, the Blue Key fraternities at both institutions came together and created the Old Wagon Wheel to deliver to the winning team each season. The Aggies took the trophy for the first time with a 20-7 victory, winning seven of the next nine meetings before things changed in a dramatic way.
The Cougars scattered just 17 wins through the first 46 meetings of the series before promoting a former Utah State offensive lineman named LaVell Edwards to head coach in 1972. The rest is, quite literally, history for the College Football Hall of Famer whose name currently adorns BYU's home stadium.
Edwards dropped his first three games to Utah State upon taking over, then would go on to lose just three more times to the Aggies in 29 seasons as head coach.
BYU has a 41-25 record in the series since the Wagon Wheel was introduced, including winning 26 of the last 31 meetings.
Modern tradition has regularly placed the game on the first Friday in October — the weekend of general conference for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the shared faith of large sections of both student bodies, and has alternated the site between the two schools.
The schools did, however, host two meetings in Ogden in 1930 and 1931; BYU won them both.
For around three decades until the mid-1970s, the schools' student bodies would steal the Wheel from one another. Few mentions of the regular "theft" of the wheel are mentioned in media and history, leading to some suspicions that the idea was more apocryphal than anecdotal.
But it remains a part of the lore, nonetheless.
"The traditional Wagon Wheel has been found and returned to what BYU fans would regard as its proper place — on the BYU campus," according to a photo published in the Provo Daily Herald in 1975. "The Wagon Wheel has traditionally gone to the winner of the Utah State-BYU football game and is traditionally stolen from the winning school by the losing school each year.
"Outside pranksters got the idea and stole it from both schools, and its whereabouts haven't been known for several years. However, this year the Wagon Wheel turned up again and BYU now has it — until it is stolen."
Where is the Wagon Wheel?
While the Wheel makes an appearance on the sideline of every football game, both home and away, it's not kept and stored at either Maverik Stadium in Logan or LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo.
When BYU has possession of it, though, it's hidden in plain sight.
Following BYU's most recent 41-14 win over the Aggies in the two schools' last meeting, the trophy returned to Legacy Hall in Provo, according to BYU communications manager Duff Tittle, who maintains the mini-museum of BYU memorabilia on campus.
And while the wheel sits in the open air inside the Cougars' student-athlete building, the size and girth of the trophy means that it has to stay chained and tethered to the wall to prevent it from falling and being damaged, Tittle said.
"In the last decade, it's been in three different places (at BYU): we had it in the main foyer of the football offices; then they had it in the football locker room for a while, on display," Tittle said. "And then most recently it was moved to the Legacy Hall."
Because of its size, the Wagon Wheel is often moved either by offensive linemen or BYU equipment staff members, occasionally in the Cougars' moving truck — such as it was before Friday's trip to Logan, where it will sit on the sideline.
The unofficial coordinator of such transportation is Chad Bunn, BYU's director of video operations who hails from Richmond. Bunn has "strong feelings" as an employee of and graduate of BYU and native of the town of 2,470 people located roughly six miles south of the Idaho border, and has taken it upon himself to keep the Wheel where it belongs, especially when the Cougars win it.
"Having been raised in Cache Valley, it has a strong meaning for him," Tittle said of Bunn. "He takes it upon himself to be the guy who makes sure the Wheel makes its way back to Provo when we win it."
Present and future of the Wheel
The Old Wagon Wheel has been awarded to the winning team for most of the 100-year-old series, but like most rivalry trophies, the newest classes of Cougars and Aggies have added their own traditions and tweaks to the award ceremony.
Ever since Darius Rucker's release of "Wagon Wheel" in 2013, the song has found its way into the series. Likely inspired by the vocal stylings of former punter Jonny Linehan, the Cougars have ended each rendition of the Old Wagon Wheel — when they win — by belting out, of course, "Wagon Wheel" in the locker room.
BYU and Utah State are scheduled to play one more time under the series' current contract in 2022, before another four-year, home-and-home contract is scheduled to kick in beginning Sept. 16, 2023 in Logan.
But with BYU's forthcoming move to the Big 12 Conference beginning with the 2023 season, the series is expected by most to change. Details of the change haven't been released yet — most parties believe they haven't been worked out. But like all of the Cougars' game contracts since going independent in 2011, the series has an out-clause for cancellations due to "war, government restriction, pandemic, NCAA restriction, natural disaster, weather, airline strike, act of terrorism, or act of God," as well as if either party joins a new conference, both newly created or existing, "that includes at least four schools that currently belong to a Power 5 conference," so long as the decision to cancel is decided within at least 12-18 months of joining the conference.
Of course, BYU isn't going to every game athletic director Tom Holmoe scheduled during the independence era. After a two-year hiatus, the Cougars and Utes are scheduled to resume a (presently) five-game series in 2024.
Similarly, BYU and Boise State are contracted to meet every year but one through 2034.
Some games like UCF and Houston can be folded into Big 12 play, but complications will arise when considering multi-game contracts with USC, Stanford, Virginia Tech, Miami and Fresno State, to name a few.
It's unlikely that either side wants to erase the BYU-Utah State series. But circumstances may dictate a reduction in scheduled games going forward.
"There's going to be a lot of schedule changes," Holmoe said, "not just with BYU, but with the SEC and other dominoes that are about to fall. There will be some things where we can work those out."
While the Utah State rivalry is fun and games for a lot of people, it's also the most important thing when the ball kicks off — a game, and one both sides take seriously.
"It's a rivalry game that we're really looking forward to," BYU coach Kalani Sitake said, "and one that we missed last year.
"The wheel is heavy, but at least you can roll it. I just want the guys to play the game and be assignment sound rather than worry about the trophy we might get after."
How to watch, stream, and listen to tonight's game
No. 15 BYU (4-0) at Utah State (3-1)
Maverik Stadium, Logan
Kickoff: 7 p.m. MT
TV: CBS Sports Network (Rich Waltz, Aaron Taylor, Jenny Dell)
Radio: BYU Radio XM 143, KSL Radio 1160 AM/102.7 FM (Greg Wrubell, Riley Nelson, Mitchell Juergens)
Series: BYU leads, 49-37-3
Friday Night Lights: BYU is playing its first game of the season on Friday night, where it holds a 7-2 record under Kalani Sitake that include the last four consecutive pre-weekend appearances. Utah State is 1-0 this season on Friday after a 48-24 home win over North Dakota on Sept. 10. The Aggies are 23-31-1 all-time in Friday night games.