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SALT LAKE CITY — With the college football regular season now in the rear view mirror, the state of Utah has a lot to be proud about with the individual performances of each of its Football Bowl Subdivision programs.
BYU strung together another 10-win season, with five victories over the Pac-12; Utah won the South division for the third time in four season and will compete for a Pac-12 Championship in Las Vegas Friday; and against all odds, Utah State will compete for a Mountain West Conference Championship Saturday following a 9-3 season.
So it begs the question: Was 2021, collectively, the best college football season in the state's history? Spoiler, the answer is yes.
While each of these programs had superb individual seasons in years past — 1984 and 1996 for BYU, 2004 and 2008 for Utah, and 2012 for Utah State — collectively 2021 was the most successful season for the state in its history, and is easily one of the most successful from a records standpoint.
With an overall 28-8 (77%) record between the three schools, a Pac-12 division title for the Utes, a Mountain West division title for the Aggies, and a 5-0 undefeated record against the Pac-12 for BYU, the teams from this state proved to be incredibly difficult to defeat.
Utah State (9-3, 6-2 MWC)
Speaking of impossible odds, Utah State was given a 1.1% chance (ninth in the Mountain West) of winning the conference back in September. With a brand new coaching staff, some significant roster turnover and a new quarterback, very few people disagreed with those odds; but the Aggies had other plans.
From the beginning, Utah State made it clear they were a force to be reckoned with as they upset a formidable Pac-12 opponent in Washington State and then won an epic shootout against Mountain West foe Air Force. While they did endure some adversity with back-to-back losses against Boise State and BYU, the Aggies bounced back and won six of the next seven in order to clinch the Mountain division and advance to the conference championship game.
The Aggies defied the odds and easily put together the most surprising performance in both the state and the Mountain West Conference. To bring in a new coaching staff after a pitiful 1-5 season last year, and then finish 9-3 the following year is a remarkable accomplishment. The program should be very proud.
Utah (9-3, 8-1 Pac-12)
To say the Utes experienced adversity this season would be an understatement. Not only did they endure the tragic loss of two teammates within a nine-month span, they also started the season 1-2 and struggled to find a pure starter in multiple key positions.
Enter Cameron Rising.
From the moment the sophomore quarterback stepped onto the field, the Utes flipped its season on its head. Despite losing in his first appearance against San Diego State, Rising orchestrated an 8-1 record, all of which came against the Pac-12, and eventually resulted in a Pac-12 South division title.
To tragically lose a teammate is a horrific trial within itself, but to lose two teammates, one of which took place during the season, is an unfathomable mountain to climb. So while nobody would've blamed the team for wanting to quit, remove themselves from the situation, or even fail to compete from that moment on, Utah continued on.
This team came together, united as a family, and trusted fully in their head coach and in each other. To compete at the level they did and to demonstrate such an incredible amount of resilience is purely inspiring and should be deemed the greatest story in sports this year.
The 2021 season was not supposed to be a dominant year for the Cougars. After losing 12 players to the NFL last year, including star quarterback Zach Wilson, 2021 was supposed to be somewhat of a wash, with few expecting BYU to be as good as they were.
But right from the start, the Cougars established themselves as a team on a mission as they claimed their first victory over Utah since 2008. The program had finally reached their limits and they started off the season with two victories against the Pac-12, overcoming a massive mental hurdle.
Throughout the remainder of the season, BYU went undefeated against all five Pac-12 opponents, including Arizona, Utah, Arizona State, Washington State and USC.
Pure dominance and an undefeated record against a Power Five conference, with more wins than half of the Pac-12 Conference had themselves (Cal, Stanford, Washington, Colorado, USC, and Arizona). While it's unfortunate the Cougars dropped two close games, which pushed them out of the top 10 rankings, BYU demonstrated how to reload a program.
They also showed they were more than deserving of their recent Big 12 invitation.
While the in-state rivalries will continue to remain competitive, the state of Utah should be immensely proud of seasons in which the top programs had. Each defied the odds, rallied together as family units, demonstrated what it means to overcome adversity, and collectively put the state of Utah on the map.
As each of these programs enter the postseason, a win in their respective final games would truly be the icing on the cake to deem 2021 as the best college football season in the state's history.
Utah will play Oregon in the Pac-12 Championship Friday at 6 p.m. MT in Las Vegas at Allegiant Stadium; the game will be broadcast on ABC. Utah State will face off against San Diego State for the Mountain West Conference title on Saturday at 1 p.m. MT in Carson, California, at Dignity Health Sports Park; the game will be broadcast on Fox.
BYU will await its final College Football Playoff rankings but will more than likely end the season at the Independence Bowl on Saturday, Dec. 18 at 1:30 p.m. MT in Shreveport, Louisiana. The game will be broadcast on ABC.