A rivalry game by any other name is still just a game. Whether it’s gussied up with an inspiring title, like “The Big Game,” “The Civil War” or, in the case of Colorado-Utah, “The Rumble in the Rockies,” a rivalry is only as good as what the teams are playing for.
It’s not the name that makes the rivalry. It’s the history. It’s the high stakes. It’s a standing annual date that’s coated with contempt. Colorado and Utah have the annual date part down. But when it comes to calling this matchup a rivalry, we’re a long ways off.
Consider a few of the games around the Pac-12 in this week’s regular-season finale. USC and UCLA will be squaring off for the South Division. Notre Dame and Stanford are going head-to-head for what could possibly be a spot in the College Football Playoff. Utah and Colorado? They are playing a division game. Nothing more.
“I think there’s got to be -- I don’t want to use the word hatred, because that’s too strong -- but a little animosity, a little bad blood maybe,” said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. “A little something that adds a little flavor to it. I think that’s probably the basis.
“I just don’t feel that with Colorado. I have a lot of respect for them, and every year it comes down to the wire. Coach [Mike] MacIntyre runs a great program. They play hard. They play the way you’re supposed to and we respect them for that.”
No word yet on whether Mac and Whitt will take in the 9:45 p.m. or 10:30 p.m. showing of the new “Mocking Jay Part 2” following Saturday’s showdown, where they’ll no doubt share a bucket of popcorn and chat late into the night.
Fact is, vanilla is not one of the key ingredients for a rivalry. The USC-UCLA rivalry was built upon years of knocking each other out of the Rose Bowl. The Big Game has had dozens of dramatic highlights, including one of the most iconic plays in college football history. Everyone remembers Notre Dame stopping Stepfan Taylor in 2012. How many people (outside of Salt Lake City) remember Trevor Reilly’s interception in 2013?
“I just don’t sense that Colorado is any more of a rival for us than any other team in the Pac-12,” Whittingham said. “I don’t mean that to be disparaging. I don’t think that’s a negative thing. It’s just the facts and the reality of the situation. There’s no bad blood other than just the normal week-to-week situation.”
That’s not to say that, one day, this particular game won’t evolve into a bona fide rivalry. But it’s going to take time. It’s going to take a few rounds where the South is on the line. And it’s going to take multiple, rivalry-defining plays.
“I don’t think a rivalry can be manufactured,” Whittingham said. “It has to evolve and grow. It seems like there has to be an event that sparks it.”
Take the Cardinal, for example. It feels like Stanford plays in a rivalry game every week -- whether it’s against Oregon or USC or UCLA or Cal or Notre Dame. How’d that happen? Because Stanford has been able to maintain success for more than a couple of seasons at a time. And each game it plays in, the stakes are higher.
“We recruit a lot of the same people, so there is crossover there,” said Stanford head coach David Shaw. “Oregon has been more recent because we’ve been going back and forth for the North and the conference championship. That’s been more about on the field and having two really good teams.
“As I say, familiarity breeds contempt to a certain extent."
Colorado’s recruiting hasn’t infiltrated much of Utah’s home base. Both recruit California, Texas and Florida. But so does everyone else. There hasn’t been that one major head-to-head recruiting battle that we see annually between the Los Angeles schools. This Saturday’s game, regardless of the outcome, isn’t going to sway someone from Boulder to Salt Lake City, or vice versa.
“One part of a rivalry is great games and a history of great games,” said MacIntyre, who is 0-3 against the Utes. “Our games have been close, but we haven’t really beat them. The more we can win will hopefully create some rivalry.”
And therein lies the key. When both teams start winning consistently and there’s more on the line than whether Utah ends up in San Francisco or El Paso for a bowl game, the rivalry will heat up. These teams played a lot in the first half of the 1900s but then took a 49-year hiatus before renewing their annual meeting when they both joined the Pac-12 in 2011.
We’re not saying it’s going to take 49 years for this game to blossom into something other than just a Pac-12 game. But we’re not not saying it either.