Although neither team is playing for the conference championship or the opportunity to play in a BCS bowl game, this game has many great side plots that have the state of Utah chomping at the bit. This game is Rocky IV. It is the battle of Freedom vs Communism. Flash vs. Tradition.
After struggling in a front-loaded season, the Cougars are showing signs of progression late in the year, and secured another bowl trip with their win over New Mexico. The Utes ate up a bunch of cupcakes to start the year, but have been brought back to reality in the last three weeks after falling hard to the TCU Horned Frogs and Notre Dame Fighting Irish, and escaping with a victory over the San Diego St. Aztecs. They have to win to prove they are as good as they think they are. BYU has to win to prove that things have turned around for good in Provo.
But this is it. This weekend ends the rivalry as we know it.
Anyone who thinks that this game will be as intense going forward is fooling themselves. With BYU and Utah being in the same conference, one of the greatest side plots to the game was that the winner, more often than not, gained at least a share of the conference title (whether in the WAC or MWC). So the fact that the Utes finally gave in to Big Brother and fled the fight to run to a BCS conference has already taken most of the glamor out of the game.
Then there is the fact that this marks that last time, at least in the foreseeable future, that the game will be played at the end of the year. When the game is at the end there is always a lot more on the line. Look at it this year. If BYU wins they go to Vegas, if they lose they go to New Mexico. If Utah wins they salvage a season with high hopes and end up in Vegas. If they lose they go from being ranked #5 in the nation to #3 in the MWC and probably land in the Poinsettia Bowl. At the end of the year, you see all the implications of this game and what a win or a loss will do. But playing it in week 4? It's just another game. It's no different than playing against USC, Florida, Miami (you know...the other schools I hate). A win or a loss is just a win or a loss against a team you don't like. You don't get to see the immediate impact on the teams respective seasons.
When Utah has the ball:
The one person that scares me is #36 Eddie Wide III. This guy is a tough, physical, and extremely fast runner. He is also catching around 4-5 passes a game. He is no doubt, the man BYU has to stop on Saturday first and foremost. Next is #1 Shaky Smithson. While is doesn't always present a great threat on the offense, he sparks drives with his returns, and the BYU KO Cover team has struggled on one or two kicks a game recently. All it takes is one to change the game.
Finally I think you have to respect #4 Matt Asiata. He is not the same runner he was before his injuries, but he is still a load to bring down. He will be running behind a big, physical and talented O-Line, so the front 7 for BYU need to buckle up their chin straps and get ready for war.
In the secondary BYU has to be prepared for all sorts of shenanigans. I would bet K Whitt and Co. have some extra special plays dialed up for the Cougars to try and gain some big momentum.
When BYU has the ball:
I am not worried about Utah's defense as much as I am worried about BYU's young offense. I don't think that Utah has an extra special defensive unit. They are a good defense, but not great, like a TCU, or fast like a Florida St Seminole defense. What I need to see early on is that the momentum this young offensive unit has gained since the bye week continues to snow ball on Saturday.
The key is our O-Line. They need to establish dominance in the run game early to give Coach Anae something to rely on throughout the game. Next they have to protect Jake Heaps at all costs. He has to be able to start out the game feeling comfortable in the pocket. He has not been pressured in the Cougars wins, and that comfort level in the pocket is what makes him deadly. If Utah can get pressure on Jake, then it becomes a toss up.
The Utes will come out with the intention of packing the box to stop the run early and force BYU into a passing game. They will make sure that JJ DiLuigi is always accounted for so that Heaps has to throw the ball down field.
In the game of the decade, my prediction is:
Utah 23 v BYU 26