If I were a veteran stockbroker using recent game performances and injuries as a simplified measuring stick, I'm buying BYU's offense and Utah's defense on Saturday afternoon.
In what may become the biggest irony of the game, don't be surprised if three former University of Utah signees or verbal commits – current BYU starters Harvey Unga, Manase Tonga and Jan Jorgensen – make a significant game-changing impact, with the Utes emerging the "biggest loser" in an intrastate rivalry that equals the animus of any other in the country.
In recent years, the game has lived up to all the preceding hype and hyperbole, and Saturday's matchup should be no exception. This season, BYU's (ranked No. 23 in latest Associated Press and USA Today polls) potent offense has yet to put all the pieces together but has still looked impressive nonetheless. Meanwhile, Utah's demoralizing defense has been spectacular of late.
Keys to the game: BYU is playing at home where they enjoy the second-longest home field win streak of any NCAA Div. I team. Moreover, the Cougars' victory last Saturday at Wyoming represented its 14th straight victory over a MWC league opponent – both at home and on the road.
Looking past the usual polite and respectful public declarations by head coaches Bronco Mendenhall and Kyle Whittingham leading up to this weekend, the 2007 edition of the BYU vs. Utah football rivalry is shaping up as much more than just another hard-fought contest. It may be a further revelation, manifestation or validation of the contrasting coaching styles of Mendenhall and Whittingham. The $64,000 question is: Which one is better?
In the TV media interview department, a personable on-air Whittingham is clearly heads above Mendenhall, an awkward, sometime stiff interviewee whose on-air demeanor seems like someone who would rather be anywhere else than in front of a camera. They both say the right thing most of the time; the notable exception being Whittingham's bungling justification of his onside kick against Wyoming while ahead 43-0 two Saturday's ago. That said, many media types regard Bronco as the straight-shooter who does or follows through more on what he says or believes in.
Both coaches have their young charges playing close to peak levels at the right time right now heading into the traditional acrimonious rivalry matchup Saturday, which will gift-wrap a second-consecutive Mountain West Conference championship for Mendenhall with a Cougar victory – or an outside shot for Whittingham and Utah to share the MWC title if BYU loses both of its remaining games (against the Utes and San Diego State). Make no mistake, neither game is a cakewalk, but that is not likely to happen.
Unfortunately for Whittingham, until he approaches the unprecedented and now legendary exploits and national acclaim of his predecessor Urban Meyer – who coached Utah to a coveted BCS Fiesta Bowl win and undefeated 2004 season, and won a BCS national championship last season at Florida – he will likely be one bad losing season away from fair-weather Ute fans clamoring for a new head coach or, at the very least, a major makeover of his coaching staff.
Mendenhall, meanwhile, took over a struggling Cougar program in a state of disarray from Gary Crowton, who has since rebounded as the current offensive coordinator for top-ranked LSU. Under Crowton, the team and program had been reduced to counting its blessings simply by qualifying for any postseason game with a minimum six wins. No more.
Based on what he has already accomplished both on and off the field in three years, Mendenhall would likely need two or more bad losing seasons before his job would be in serious jeopardy by BYU administrators. Accepting a Cougar head coaching position that Whittingham had earlier declined, Mendenhall has already revived memories of the Cougar glory days by embracing and integrating principles and a clearly communicated strategic approach that holds players to a higher standard of personal accountability and consistency on and off the field.
Even legendary coach LaVell Edwards never accomplished what Mendenhall has already established – and continually strives to build upon.
Prior to this season, BYU had the No. 1 ranking for highest team GPA among all NCAA Div. I teams. Moreover, BYU now graduates more than 90 percent of its seniors under Mendenhall, sends more players on LDS missions than ever before and deftly deals with all off-field infractions swiftly, consistently and decisively – regardless of player stature or status on the team.
On the recruiting front, BYU under Mendenhall has signed more high school prospects or received more verbal commitments from players offered by both Utah and BYU, although Whittingham has enjoyed excellent success recruiting top performing non-LDS players.
While off-field achievements are notable and important to any program, Mendenhall's even-tempered coaching style and consistent approach has already yielded MWC championships the last two years, despite season-ending injuries this year to four key starters.
Whittingham's only equalizer in his short-lived rivalry matchup with Mendenhall, at least in the minds of Ute fans, would be a decisive "W" at LaVell Edwards Stadium this weekend. The Utes lost a perfect opportunity last season with quarterback John Beck's improbable game-winning touchdown to tight end Johny Harline with no time remaining. Mendenhall's jubilant upraised arms and beaming grin, the most animated he was all season, contrasted with Whittingham's disappointment and despair of the moment.
Expect the same come Saturday.