Rivals BYU, Utah ready for The Holy War in Sin City
The Las Vegas Bowl has taken on a new moniker: The Holy War in Sin City.
Longtime rivals BYU and No. 20 Utah will meet in the postseason for the first time on Saturday with an eye on finishing on a high note. Both programs ended the season on a dour note despite posting nine wins.
Las Vegas was a far-down-the-list destination for the Utes (9-3) after starting the season 6-0 and being ranked No. 3 in the country. There was talk of playing in the College Football Playoff at one time, but Utah lost three of six to wrap up the regular season and didn't even win the Pac-12 South. The Utes and USC finished with identical conference records, but the Trojans earned the head-to-head tiebreaker.
''We were essentially one game away from being able to play in the (Pac-12) championship game, so that was disappointing, but it's still been a very good year for us,'' Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said. ''Co-champs of the South, that's not bad when you're picked to finish fifth.''
BYU (9-3) is back in Vegas after playing in the bowl five consecutive times from 2005-09. Life as an independent leaves little on the line after two losses, but the last two weeks energized the Cougars.
Saturday will be the last game for coach Bronco Mendenhall after 11 years at the head of the program. He's been hired to coach Virginia, but will go for his 100th win first.
A showdown with the Utes provides an edge to the game that no other program could.
The two teams have never played in the postseason or at a neutral site.
''One of the first things that I thought after hearing the news from Coach Mendenhall immediately was, `I can't wait to play in the bowl game because of how hard we're going to fight for this guy,''' BYU receiver Mitch Mathews said. ''That is something that will happen. There'll be a new level of fight in us for Coach Mendenhall.''
Things to watch during the Las Vegas Bowl:
HOLY WAR: There were extensive debates this year about the series between the two schools located 46 miles apart. They played the so-called Holy War rivalry game every year from 1946 to 2013, when Utah discontinued the series to play Michigan in 2014 and 2015. They pick back up in 2016, but Utah questions the viability of playing every year. The Utes have a tough Pac-12 schedule and the BYU game presents a difficult nonconference game that doesn't necessarily carry the weight nationally that a matchup with a Power 5 school would.
CLOSE CONNECTIONS: Utah has three coaches who played at BYU - Whittingham, co-offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick and linebackers coach Justin Ena. BYU defensive line coach Steve Kaufusi used to coach at Utah.
FALLEN STARS: Both teams are without star offensive players. BYU quarterback Taysom Hill was lost for the year in the season opener. Utah leading rusher Devontae Booker is out after having knee surgery and leading receiver Britain Covey is questionable with a leg injury.
BAD BLOOD: Utah defensive tackle Viliseni Fauonuku called BYU ''a dirty team'' on the microphone at the welcome reception for the two teams. BYU fans were not amused. The university has dealt with several incidents of questionable behavior recently. BYU basketball player Nick Emery was recently suspended a game for punching Utah guard Brandon Taylor during a game.
QUOTABLE: ''As you get closer to the game, we get more hyped to play the game, we get more juiced and we're excited to play an in-state rival at a bowl game,'' Utah linebacker Gionni Paul said. ''We're preparing our behinds off to win this game and I think there ain't no bowl game out there more serious than this bowl game.''
AP freelancer W.G. Ramirez contributed to this report.