<strong>LOGAN —</strong> Shortly after Utah Athletic Director Chris Hill officially announced Tuesday that the “Holy War” would be taking a hiatus for the first time in more than 60 years, comments began popping up on message boards. Despite a diminished rivalry with Utah, it would be a joke to think Utah State University could possibly fill that void.
These statements and sentiments are not shocking by any means. USU has long been viewed as the middle child in the state. Utah and BYU fans pat the Aggies on the head when they do well, congratulate USU on being better than Weber State, Southern Utah, and Utah Valley, but the Utes and Cougars maintain they stand aloof in their superiority.
Looking at the top two Division I (FBS) sports for each school – football and basketball – much of that superiority complex is rightly placed. Until 2011, USU had not had a winning football season (or been to a bowl game) since 1997. Until the Aggies <a href=”http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6mfvErG-ZkU” target=”_blank”>home win</a> against BYU in 2010, USU had not beaten the Cougars in 17 years. It’s been 14 years since the Aggies beat the Utes – winning back-to-back games in 1996-97.
USU has not played Utah since 2009, so there is no recent history between the two programs. However, the Aggies have split the past two games with the Cougars, winning 31-16 in 2010 and falling 27-24 in Provo last year. According to ESPN’s college football <a href=”https://twitter.com/ESPNCFB” target=”_blank”>Twitter account</a>, that game was <a href=”http://www.usufans.com/Forums/viewtopic.php?f=4&t=17070#p102880″ target=”_blank”>voted the favorite</a> Friday night football game on ESPN in 2011 (verified by scrolling down to the post on Dec. 2, 2011).
Despite the unwillingness of BYU fans to consider USU a “real” rival, things are headed in that direction. The games are closer, the contests are more heated, and the trash talk is ever-increasing. If the Aggies and Cougars continue to battle on the gridiron like they have the past couple of seasons, an increase in the level of the rivalry is inevitable. Each of the past two seasons’ games have ended with the home crowd <a href=”http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w8B95g1vBSI” target=”_blank”>rushing the field</a>. That’s a rivalry.
While the football rivalry is – without question – in its infancy, there is little debate that the Aggies and the Cougars have fielded the two best basketball programs in the state over the past decade. There can certainly be a lot said about strength of schedule, tournament success, and conference strength. However, in head-to-head matchups, there is no hiding behind any of that. Utah State is 7-4 against the Cougars in the past 11 meetings.
Almost every game has been tightly contested, and there have been plenty of antics from both fanbases. Two years ago, following a victory in Provo, the Cougars were <a href=”http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vNywxxbdLRs” target=”_blank”>quick to remind</a> the Aggies where they stood in the state hierarchy. Last season, USU students camped out in sub-zero temperatures to make sure and get a spot in the Spectrum when BYU visited – the Aggie faithful also turned out to <a href=”http://espn.go.com/blog/collegebasketballnation/post/_/id/38546/usu-fans-form-byu-welcoming-committee” target=”_blank”>“welcome”</a> the Cougars when they arrived for the game.
This is what rivals do.
My experience with schools and rivalries extends beyond the state of Utah. I received my graduate degree from Syracuse University which has one of the premier basketball teams in the country and plays in the (current) top basketball conference. I covered the Big East Tournament at Madison Square Garden, and witnessed plenty of crazy fans, crowds, and arenas.
As much as BYU fans will disagree, Utah State already is a rival – at least in basketball. Once the Utes left the Mountain West, leaving no Utah school in the same conference as its brother, the USU-BYU rivalry was cemented on the hardwood. With a conference title no longer up for grabs, it is simply bragging rights that are on the line in the state of Utah. It is the Aggies and Cougars that have consistently battled for those rights in recent memory.
Football has not reached that level yet, but signs certainly point to the USU-BYU game heading that direction, especially if the Aggie football program continues to improve. The annual Utah-BYU football game will no longer decide a conference championship in late November – it now won’t even take place on a yearly basis. Meanwhile, the Aggies and Cougars will continue to play … and the rivalry will continue to grow.
<em>Timothy R. Olsen completed his undergraduate degree in journalism at Utah State University before earning his master’s degree from the prestigious S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University. While there, he served as the beat writer for the Syracuse football and men’s basketball teams. He also worked at the Utah Statesman where he served as the USU football and men’s basketball beat writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or you can follow him on Twitter @TheRealTO. </em>