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November 23, 2011

New rival for Utah?

The Pac-12's "Rumble in the Rockies" - the annual day-after Thanksgiving showdown between Colorado and Utah - is imminent. How are the Utes handling the build up to playing their newest heated rival?

"We're not doing anything special to prepare for this team," said rising safety Eric Rowe. "This is just another game. It's a game we have to win, but it's just another game. I don't know anything about them other than what I've seen on film."

The air just got sucked out of the bag of hot air the Pac-12 is selling to the college football world. As any Utah or BYU fan knows, it takes decades to build a rivalry where every comment in the media is stored in the back of the mind, and recalled at will at the most opportune time.

No, a rivalry is built on every hit that came just after the whistle, every too-jubilant end-zone celebration and on every irrational debate between neighbors, or even family members.

"You can't just manufacture a rivalry out of thin air," said senior safety and special teams expert Greg Bird. "It's not the same, and this week definitely feels different to us. We'll just have to see how this one turns out. I guess it's the start of something new."

Indeed, the Utah-Colorado rivalry is new to both programs, and on paper, the rivalry makes sense for several reasons.

Geographically, the teams are natural rivals; flanking the east and west sides of the Rocky Mountains, the label "Rumble in the Rockies" is certainly appropriate. The tag-line encompasses the totality of the rivalry, not just football. Not unlike the Deseret Dual that Utah shared with BYU, the Rumble in the Rockies keeps track of results in all sports, with an annual winner declared based on a points system.

As the two new-comers to the Pac-12, Utah and Colorado share a common struggle in trying to quiet the nay-sayers and critics who, at times, have deemed the two unworthy Pac-12 opponents.

"I guess besides senior day, we're both new [to the conference] and trying to play for that pride, or not being the one that kind of faltered in the first season," said receiver Reggie Dunn. "That's as close as I can come to kind of making this like a true rivalry right now."

Another new concept injected into this instant rivalry is the decision to move the game to the Friday after Thanksgiving on an annual basis.

This season, the Friday kickoff has affected the Utes very little as the game is being played in Salt Lake City. Next season, however, the Utes will be on the road for Thanksgiving, presenting logistical and personal challenges related to the holiday itself.

"Since we're at home, it's been no disruption to us, but looking forward to next season, we'll be at their place, so it could be a bit of a hiccup, but we'll deal with that as it comes," said head coach Kyle Whittingham.

Receiver and prolific kickoff returner Reggie Dunn sees it just a little bit differently.

"We'll have a little something extra this week," he commented.

In grand anti-climatic fashion, the comment has nothing to do with the opponent, or any sort of contrived rivalry.

"We're going to have more for them this week, because this is a game we have to have," Dunn said. "We have big goals, and a let down this week keeps us from reaching those, so we're going to be ready. You can count on it."

Eric Rowe added another bit of motivation that might be driving the Utes this week, and again, it has nothing to do with their opponent.

"It's Senior Day, so that's huge for us. That's the biggest thing we're focusing on this week," Rowe said. "Showing our gratitude for everything they've done for the program, showing that respect by sending them out the right way is what we'll play extra hard for this week."

According to Rowe and the rest of the Utes, the focus is on winning for the seniors, which doesn't change the weekly routine leading up to game day.

"Our process is always the same. No matter who we play, or what day the game is being played," said head coach Kyle Whittingham. "We just adjust the days to fit, and other than tailoring a game plan to counter an opponent's scheme, who we play doesn't alter the process."

Though feelings are passionately mixed on the topic of the season ending rivalry game, and whether or not fans prefer playing BYU or new foe Colorado, the fact remains that the Utes have moved on to bigger, and better things.

An annual post-Thanksgiving date with the Buffaloes is in the cards for the foreseeable future, and while no excitement or buzz surrounds the inaugural 'Rumble in the Rockies' game, it's a sign of things to come.

The Buffaloes' and Utes' new conference has worked hard, indeed, to prop up an instant rivalry, but not with bad intentions.

On the contrary, the Pac-12's vision to turn this would-be rivalry into a staple of the nation's Thanksgiving holiday weekend is an early gift, pre-wrapped and well thought out for both programs.

The Pac-12 needs both Utah and Colorado to be successful, nationally high-profile programs in order to lend credibility to the decision to extend invitations to both teams. Granted, the conference needed two more teams to make a championship game, and an even bigger payoff. That much is conceded by all, but for the conference to really take off, both programs need to trend upward.

The conference's equal profit sharing policy is evidence of that fact; a demonstration that the Pac-12 was fully invested (a new twist on an old Utah adage) in the long-term success of both programs.

It was widely believed that the inequality of the profit split in the Big XII, dominated by the Texas Longhorns was both the reason Colorado found itself buried in the basement of the Big XII standings on an annual basis. The Buffs simply couldn't afford to keep up, and Texas made sure of that. The profit split is also the reason Colorado was so eager to bolt when the Pac-12 came calling.

In that climate then, Buff fans and Ute fans alike should embrace the new rivalry, as an opportunity to build somewhat of a national following, or at least relevance, which can only increase visibility for the schools, and for the conference. In the college football world, visibility usually results in bigger paychecks, and makes for recruiting exposure in more/national markets; something both teams would benefit from greatly.

Bring on the "Rumble in the Rockies" then, for it can only represent bigger and better things, even if some must let go of ugly November clashes with BYU and its fans.





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