125 miles, Three Teams, and Three Different Paths to Success

AP Photo/George Frey

125 miles, Three Teams, and Three Different Paths to Success

Football

125 miles, Three Teams, and Three Different Paths to Success

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AP Photo/George Frey

When thinking about sports in general, many cities, fan bases, and franchises come to mind. More often than not, glamorous Los Angeles, the bright lights of New York City or other historically rich sports cities like Chicago, Philadelphia, Dallas, etc. come to mind. College football is different. It’s never needed big cities to dominate ratings in the various regions it’s located. Think of Tuscaloosa, Gainesville, South Bend and all of the other towns you would never know the name of, if you did not love college football. As a regionally dominant and dependent sport, it can be easy to forget about all of the teams outside of Big-10 and SEC country. However, college football’s most interesting stories are not limited to the eastern and central time zones. 

The most successful region west of Texas this season has been Utah. Unless you call the beehive state home, it’s unlikely that you immediately think of Utah as a state enriched with college football talent. No, it’s not SEC country, but it is worth your attention as its three largest schools, Utah, BYU and Utah State, have all had historic seasons despite lying within the same 125 miles of mountain terrain. When fighting over the same recruits, in a small state in terms of population, it’s rare to see the three programs have simultaneous success. Yet, for the first time in the 99 years that all three of the schools have had a football program all three finished with double-digit wins. 

This success has led to plenty of praise towards coaches Kalani Sitake (BYU), Kyle Whittingham (Utah) and Blake Anderson (Utah State). In fact, these three were all named finalists for the Eddie Robinson Coach of the Year award. Simple math shows how fascinating that feat really is, with 23% of the finalists being from Utah schools while Utah is only home to just over 2% of all FBS football programs. Each program can look in the rearview mirror and be thrilled with what their program has accomplished this season. That’s an anomaly, one that may never happen again in Utah, but definitely one that should not go unnoticed. In order to understand how significant this is, it’s vital to understand the recent adversity each program has overcome to reach this point. 

No. 12 BYU (10-2): 

It was announced Friday, December 10, that BYU head coach Kalani Sitake had been awarded a contract extension through 2027 to remain at BYU. That deal may have been the biggest win for the Cougars this season, an impressive feat considering the Cougars post a 10-2 record heading into their bowl game. Although it’s easy to celebrate today for Cougar fans, they are only a few seasons removed from misery. After being named BYU head coach in 2016, Sitake led the Cougars to a mediocre 13-13 record in his first two seasons. That stretch included a 4-9 season in 2017 where BYU opened the season with its offense unable to cross the 50-yard-line in a blow-out loss to LSU, before losing seven-straight games. 

It’s not that way anymore. BYU has posted a record of 21-3 over the past two seasons, and has grabbed national attention with playmaking stars like former BYU quarterback Zach Wilson. This season, the Cougars did something they had not done since 2009, they won the Holy War. BYU had been ridiculed by Utah as the Utes dominated the state’s college football landscape. The tides finally shifted this season as BYU defeated Utah 26-17 in early September. BYU kept its momentum rolling, eventually reaching a 5-0 record over Pac-12 opponents. Despite its independence, and G-5 perception and flurry of injuries, the Cougars proved that they deserve to be taken seriously. A two-loss season, with one coming to a top-10 team in Baylor combined with wins over both in-state rivals, Utah and Utah State, is something BYU fans would have never seen coming a few years ago. Now that it’s finally here, all that’s left is to enjoy it. 

No. 10 Utah (10-3): 

While its bitter rival, BYU has overcome adversity in the forms of wins and losses, the Utes have had to overcome the adversity of losing loved ones. Utes Aaron Lowe and Ty Jordan both devastatingly passed away over the past two seasons. Lowe and Jordan were dear friends before attending Utah as they grew up together in Mesquite, Texas. With off the field circumstances as tough as one could imagine, it’s remarkable how the Utes (10-3) finished 2021 with a Pac-12 title and an invite to the Rose Bowl. It did not look like the Utes were headed this direction back in September. Prior to the season, head coach Kyle Whittingham named Baylor-transfer Charlie Brewer as the starting quarterback. That proved to be a regrettable decision as Brewer only made it through three games before leaving the program after he was benched in favor of sophomore Cameron Rising. In his three-game stint with the Utes, Brewer led Utah to a 1-2 record while throwing three touchdowns, three interceptions and posting a quarterback rating of 32.9. The ugly start cost them in losses to BYU and San Diego State. 

Everything changed after the loss to San Diego State as Utah went 9-1 in Pac-12 play to finish the season. The dominant stretch included dismantling highly-ranked Oregon two times in a span of two weeks. The Utes outscored the Ducks by a combined score of 76-17 in those two games. The outstanding performances in conference play have punched a Rose Bowl ticket for the Utes as they are scheduled to take on No. 6 Ohio State on New Year’s Day. However, this season means a lot more than a Rose Bowl appearance. When the sky seemed to be falling back in September, Whittingham kept his squad focused while others bailed and lost hope. Losing to your rival, losing loved ones and having your quarterback leave the program are not things any coach would desire for their program to experience. The Utes have turned what could have been a disaster, into one of their greatest seasons in the Whittingham era. A win over Ohio State would elevate the season to an entirely new level. 

Utah State (10-3): 

Utah State decimated San Diego State 46-13 to claim the Mountain West Championship honors. Similar to its neighbors BYU and Utah, the future did not seem to be bright until recently. The Aggies are only one year removed from a 1-5 finish that featured a plethora of disasters. The first being the exodus of Gary Anderson as head coach midway through the 2020 season. Frank Maile was named the interim head coach before the biggest disaster hit. During a zoom call between players, athletic director John Hartwell and the Utah State University President Noelle Cockett, players felt that Cockett took issues with Maile’s religious and cultural background. The comments led to the players opting to sit out of their final game against Colorado State. To say the least it was a mess, and one that would require a serious clean-up job. 

Blake Anderson was the man for the job. Anderson came to Logan from Arkansas State, where he spent the past seven seasons as the head coach, leading the Red Wolves to six-straight winning seasons and bowl games. Although Anderson had a history of success, he crushed the expectations of many with what he did with the Aggies in 2021. Utah State opened the season with a road victory over a Power-5 opponent, Washington State, before embarking on a season that only saw losses to rival BYU, Boise State and Wyoming. The upset win over San Diego State in the Mountain West Championship game was a testament to what the Aggies have accomplished. Simply put, they did things that were not expected. To turn a disastrous 2020 into a championship season the following season is as unique as it comes. The Aggies may have more reason to celebrate if they can pick up a victory over Oregon State in the Jimmy Kimmel LA Bowl on December 18.

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