BYU v Utah – 2019 Holy War

One of the biggest rivalries in major college football kicks of the season between the teams when the University of Utah Utes travel to face the Brigham Young University Cougars on Thursday, August 29th at 8:15pm MST.

In what will be the hundredth game in a series dating back to 1896, the Utes hold the overall record in the series at 61-34-4, including the last eight games in the series. This will also be the earliest date on the calendar that the clubs have met since the first meeting back on April 6, 1896.

The teams shared a conference for most of the rivalry (1922-2010 over four different conferences), and the game played on the last Saturday of the regular season often helped determine the winner of that conference. For example, a win against BYU at what was then Cougar Stadium in 1995 helped the Ron McBride-coached Utes tie BYU for the WAC Championship that season. The same could be said of the 1999 match-up, another Ute victory in Provo that ended with the teams tied atop the Mountain West Conference.

Divergent Paths

But since 2011, when the Utes left the Mountain West for the PAC-12, and BYU went independent in football after losing out in the conference realignment shuffle, the game has shifted to September during the Utes’ non-conference portion of the schedule, or not even contested at all, as it was during the 2014 and 2015 regular seasons.

After that brief hiatus – which saw the series resume with a matchup in a bowl game for the first, and only time, ever in the Las Vegas Bowl in 2015 – the teams have resumed scheduling each other, and are currently on each other’s schedule each season through 2024.

Utah has dominated the series recently, winning the past eight games dating back to their last matchup as members of the Mountain West in 2010. For the most part, the games have been within a touchdown, with only one exceeding an eight point margin of victory:

Over the Utes current eight-game winning streak, the average margin of victory has been 9.6 points; if you remove the 2011 blowout, the average margin of victory shrinks to 4.7. Regardless of how you look at it, this rivalry has definitely shifted to the Utes for two complete classes at the schools.

Even beyond the last eight games, BYU has only won six games in the last 20 in the series, with an average margin of victory of only four points. This is a reversal from the previous 20 games in the series, which saw BYU victorious in 14 games, which was during the 1980s and 1990s when BYU was the dominant team. The 21st century has belonged to the Utes in this matchup, and it’s probably going to stay that way for a while.

Independence Has a Price

The economics of belonging to a major football conference has many benefits for the Utes. Though BYU is wholly-owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, and the vast resources behind it, they simply do not receive the same amount of money from their media rights’ deals that the University of Utah does as a member of the PAC-12. BYU was still working out the details of their broadcast deal with ESPN over the summer, with potential bowl affiliations the likely holdup.

As a private institution, it’s hard to know for sure exactly how lucrative that ESPN contract is going to be; one of the selling points to BYU being independent – as opposed to remaining in the Mountain West, a “Group of 5 Conference” – was that they would have more control and be able to negotiate a better deal than their Mountain West brethren. Estimated results put media rights’ revenue for BYU at about $4.5 million in 2016, while not terrible, pales in comparison to what Utah receives from the PAC-12.

Even accounting for inflation since 2016, as well as what a new contract will pay in the current environment, I don’t think BYU will be able to compete at the same level. The PAC-12 distributed $31.3 million to each of its 12 schools in 2018. Granted, this number includes the revenue generated by basketball and other minor sports, but BYU’s presence in the West Coast Conference for all other sports is not closing the gap anytime soon.

Even being generous and giving BYU $10 million a year from ESPN – the top of the range of the contract they signed in 2010 – and other revenues, BYU would still be top of the heap among Mountain West and other “Group of 5” schools[1], but far behind even the bottom PAC-12 team in total revenue generated. While year to year these numbers may change, consistently earning $15-20 million less year after year makes it hard for BYU to invest in facilities the way that other schools affiliated with conferences can. Combine that with BYU’s middling performance over their time as an independent – 63-41 since 2011, with a 3-3 bowl record – I can’t imagine ESPN opening the checkbook much wider for the Cougars going forward.

The Pick

Nevertheless, the rivalry persists, and just like every season, the game can often make or break the season for the victor. With lofty expectations for the Utes this season – they are expected to win the PAC-12 and were even picked as a Championship finalist by one television prognosticator – a loss to BYU on Thursday night will not mean the end of those Championship aspirations, but it would take a little wind out of their sails to begin the season.

The Cougars, on the other hand, are expected to finish right around 6-6, like they did last season.[2] With home games against USC, Washington, and Boise State, as well as a trip to Tennessee, they want to start the season off with a win, if only to improve their chances at improving on last season’s record. They can bookend the decade against the Utes with a win on Thursday, hopefully setting up the next 20 years to revert back to the way it used to be. Or they can lose, allowing Utah to match their longest winning streak in the series at nine games (set from 1929-1937), and truly look even more like the little brother in the matchup.

Despite being born into a BYU household – I even attended the 1981 Holiday Bowl shortly before my first birthday – it’s hard to look past the recent history and think that BYU has any chance in this one. The Utes are the better team, will likely be so for the next few years, and the Cougars will continue to play catch up as long as they fight to maintain independence.

Prediction: Utah 35 – BYU 17


[1] That article uses figures from 2017, and uses the $10 million/year estimate from ESPN. Based on total revenues garnered from other public documents, BYU’s total revenue of its athletic department ranks 55th in the NCAA. Not bad for an independent school, but behind every PAC-12 school but Washington State.

[2] They defeated Western Michigan in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl to finish 7-6 overall.

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