Nixon knew a thing or two about rivalries, or so he thought. Then he played in his first BYU-Utah game and realized he still had plenty to learn.
"Those rivalries don't hold a candle to this one," Nixon said. "There's just so much bitterness because we're just 40 minutes away from each other. The religion comes into play.
"There's just so much hatred.''
Perhaps the most-anticipated game in the 112-year history of this rivalry takes place Saturday when Utah (11-0 overall, 7-0 in the Mountain West Conference) tries to complete a perfect regular season by avenging back-to-back last-minute losses to BYU (10-1, 6-1).
Utah, ranked seventh in the BCS standings, virtually guarantees itself a BCS invitation with a victory; it would be the Utes' second BCS appearance in five seasons. BYU is 14th in the BCS standings and also could earn an at-large BCS berth – its first – if it beats Utah while Boise State drops one of its final two games.
The high stakes involved have helped this season's renewal of the rivalry earn widespread attention, even though most of the nation can't see it. The game will air live on The mtn., a cable channel available to only 2.2 million cable households across the country – including no cable subscribers east of the Mississippi River. The network also is available to certain DirecTV subcribers.
Both teams involved believe the attention is long overdue. Utah residents insist this annual series is as big as any in the country, even if doesn't have the tradition or star power of the biggest rivalries in more established conferences.
Sure, it's easy to dismiss the comments of Nixon and Johnson because they aren't exactly unbiased observers. But even people who have moved on to bigger conferences with more celebrated rivalries understand the emotions and tempers.
"It's a nasty rivalry," said Florida coach Urban Meyer, who won both his meetings with BYU while coaching Utah in 2003 and '04. "I had to be educated on it because I didn't understand that. I thought it was two teams that are not that far apart and go play, a little bit like Ohio State-Michigan. (With) Ohio State-Michigan, there's an element of respect and tradition, but out there, boy, I had to be tuned in. It's an ugly deal."
What makes the rivalry so nasty? Let us count the ways.
It's the heartbroken vs. the heartbreaker.
BCS veteran vs. BCS hopeful.
Church vs. state.
And there's really no other rivalry in the state. Utah State, the only other FBS (i.e., Division I-A) program in the state, has gone 5-30 the past three seasons and hasn't had a winning record since 1996. That leaves Utah and BYU fighting for state supremacy each season.
"Everyone in this state is either a BYU or a U of U fan," Nixon said. "In Texas you have people who are Aggies, Longhorns, (TCU) Horned Frogs, (Texas Tech) Red Raiders.
Closer than ever
Perhaps no rivalry in the nation has been as evenly matched as the Utah-BYU series over the past three seasons. Here's a recap:
2005: Utah 41, BYU 34 (OT): Brett Ratliff started in place of an injured Brian Johnson and threw four touchdown passes for Utah, which won its fourth in a row over BYU for the first time since 1968-71. BYU rallied from a 24-3 halftime deficit to tie it, but John Beck's fourth-down overtime pass missed a diving Michael Reed in the end zone.
2006: BYU 33, Utah 31: BYU had the ball at Utah's 11 with 3.2 seconds left when John Beck rolled to his left, went back to his right and threw to Jonny Harline, who caught the winning touchdown pass on his knees as time expired. Beck threw for 375 yards and four touchdowns, including three to Harline. Utah had taken the lead on Brett Ratliff's 19-yard touchdown pass to Brent Casteel with 1:19 left.
2007: BYU 17, Utah 10: BYU trailed 10-9 with just over a minute remaining when Max Hall threw a 49-yard completion to Austin Collie on a fourth-and-18 play from BYU's 12. The long pass set up Harvey Unga's game-winning 11-yard touchdown run with 38 seconds remaining. Utah hurt itself by committing two 15-yard penalties on BYU's winning touchdown drive.
"In this state, you're either a BYU or a U of U fan. You pick your side early in life and stick with it."
Kyle Whittingham played linebacker at BYU from 1978-81 and began his coaching career as a graduate assistant at his alma mater in 1985-86 before joining Utah's coaching staff in 1994. When Utah and BYU offered him head-coaching jobs in the winter of 2004, Whittingham chose the Utes.
Whittingham's experience on both sides of the rivalry give him a unique perspective on the history of a series that hasn't always been so evenly matched.
After the teams started playing annually in 1922, Utah didn't lose to BYU until 1942. The Utes posted a 28-1-4 record against BYU from 1922-57. The balance of power shifted after LaVell Edwards took over BYU's program in 1972. BYU was 22-7 against Utah during Edwards' regime, including a 15-1 mark from 1972-87.
"There was a stretch there where it was a very lopsided rivalry during LaVell's heyday. … Since about 1992 or '93, it has become much more competitive," Whittingham said. "I think that has added to the passion and emotion."
Now it's hard to find a more nip-and-tuck rivalry. Utah owns a 6-5 edge in the past 11 meetings, though BYU has won the past two. Ten of those games have been decided by seven or fewer points.
"I think it's one of the greatest rivalries in college football regardless of conference, regardless of area or region or time zone," BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall said. "This particular matchup I think has the quality of football, the emotions that go with it and the passions of fans that I think would rival anyplace in the country. Those who don't understand that are only from the SEC, Big 12, etc.
"They certainly don't understand it, but I think anyone who's been a part of it does."
The rivalry has grown even tighter since Mendenhall's arrival as BYU's coach in 2005. Utah squeaked out a 41-34 overtime victory in Mendenhall's first year. Since then, BYU has been handing out the heartbreak. Two years ago, BYU beat Utah 33-31 when John Beck rolled to his left, reversed field and threw an 11-yard touchdown pass across his body to tight end Jonny Harline as time expired.
BYU defeated Utah again last year in a similarly improbable fashion. The Cougars trailed 10-9 when Max Hall fought off a sprained shoulder to throw a 49-yard completion to Austin Collie on a fourth-and-18 play from BYU's 12 with just over a minute remaining. That fourth-down conversion set up Harvey Unga's game-winning 11-yard touchdown run with 38 seconds left in BYU's 17-10 victory.
"It's been a great game the last three years," Johnson said. "We had an overtime game, some last-second heroics happening. The fans definitely got their money's worth with some great moments in the past three years. I don't think you could ask for anything more."
Those three games have heightened the raw emotions that already existed between these programs. Nixon admits he didn't completely understand the hatred associated with this rivalry until he arrived at BYU and heard people referring to Utah simply as "that school up north."
"Texas-Texas A&M is heated, but when you see a Longhorn, you kind of make fun of them and that's it," Nixon said. "You see a Ute around here and you almost hate them without talking to them.''
One difference is that just about every other rivalry in college football is merely school vs. school or state vs. state. BYU-Utah pits church vs. state. While the state of Utah is synonymous with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, Mormons are much more prevalent at BYU.
Demographic information on BYU's Web site shows that 99 percent of the fall semester students at BYU who reported their religion were LDS members. BYU's roster includes 60 players who have served church missions.
As a state school, Utah doesn't provide religious breakdowns of its enrollment, but 10 of its scholarship players have gone on missions. The LDS member and statistical records department reported that BYU has more than four times as many students attending Mormon congregations on campus than Utah, even though BYU's total enrollment is only 18 percent larger.
"I think it does play into it to some extent," Mendenhall said. "I couldn't put a percentage on it nor could I say what it would be like without that, but anytime faith is involved or a faith-based institution is involved, there's another element to the rivalry or the support or the dislike of a given program.
"I think it has to be acknowledged. To say how much, I'm not certain."
BYU and Utah are such heated foes that they can't even agree on when their rivalry started. Utah indicates the series began in 1896, when BYU was known as the BY Academy. BYU lists 1922 as the first "official" meeting.
BYU opened the season as the Mountain West favorite and the most likely contender from outside the "Big Six" conferences to earn a BCS bid, but the Cougars may have done irreparable harm to their BCS hopes with a 32-7 loss to TCU on Oct. 16. Now the most likely BCS upstart is Utah, which followed up non-conference wins over Michigan and Oregon State by rallying past TCU two weeks ago. Stealing away that BCS bid BYU wanted so badly would constitute Utah's perfect revenge for the disappointments of 2006 and '07.
And it would add one more chapter to a rivalry that gradually is losing its status as one of college football's best-kept secrets.
"I grew up watching Texas-Oklahoma, and it's crazy," said Utah cornerback Brice McCain, a senior from Terrell, Texas. "But this rivalry is up there with any rivalry in the nation. It's just under the radar."