BYU football is at a crossroads, at the metaphorical intersection of what's real and what's imagined, with only the former authentically leading to what's next for Bronco Mendenhall's program. It is a junction where the Cougars have to face down not just what they want to be, but what they can be and what they are.
What's real right now is the hard-truth highway found in the aftermath of a 38-7 loss suffered in Provo at the hands of TCU on Saturday night, the freeway exit off a 32-7 defeat in Fort Worth last season.
In both cases, BYU was put on that path by an opponent that was more athletic and better coached than the Cougars. That's happened twice this season and three times last, when BYU was throttled by teams with more speed, more polish, more poise, more pluck.
There have been a lot of wins mixed in over the past couple of seasons, too, but mostly against teams that provide little or no measure for true excellence or genuine progress, with the victory over what's turned out to be a compromised Oklahoma team as an exception. Overall, Mendenhall is 9-13 in big games and 2-7 against ranked teams.
In his postgame remarks Saturday night, the coach candidly talked about what was obvious to anybody who watched the TCU game, admitting that many of the athletes at BYU are not on par with many of the Horned Frogs. The delineating factor?
Speed. His solution to the problem was brave, but also partially off-target.
He essentially said BYU's model would never be identical to TCU's, meaning the Cougars couldn't get the same number of athletes as the Frogs, the same kind of speed, but that the players they could get have to execute more efficiently to make up for their lack of athleticism, through their diligence and conscientiousness. He also said he had to do a better job of coaching up his players ... and of coaching up his offensive and defensive coordinators. (OK, I added that last part.)
The problem with that notion is that other programs, such as TCU, have talented athletes who also are diligent and conscientious, who execute and are coached up, in the vernacular of Mendenhall, to a higher level.
If BYU doesn't have the same number of top athletes, and isn't as well coached as some other programs, even if the Cougars somehow were suddenly better coached, does that make up all the difference?
BYU could have executed near perfectly on Saturday night, and it still would have lost to a clearly superior team. There may be rare exceptions to that rule, and those exceptions can be found in the program's past, but they remain exactly that -- exceptions.
There just aren't as many athletes who will take a shot at coming to Provo, attending a religious school, living BYU's Honor Code, which is the equivalent of the normal LDS Church standard on steroids, as there are athletes who won't. The Cougars even miss out on top Mormon athletes who want to go elsewhere.
And as long as that turbo-standard is strictly enforced, BYU's football success will have a ceiling. A troop of Boy Scouts might make you proud, but, in today's world, they won't win a national title. That doesn't mean the Cougars can't win eight, nine or 10 games most seasons, especially playing in the Mountain West Conference. It just means they will struggle against programs with financial backing, with great head coaches who know how to recruit and lead a team to victory. Coaches like Gary Patterson, teams like TCU, and victories like Saturday night's.
It's presumptuous on the part of Mendenhall -- and inaccurate -- to think that he can recruit fewer great athletes, athletes who supposedly will work harder than players in other programs, and then do a better job of mentoring them than other top coaches.
Where's the proof for that possibility?
BYU had two terrific seasons under Bronco in which they finished 11-2. Pretty darn good, but not good enough to qualify for anything bigger than the Las Vegas Bowl.
Utah has made it to two BCS bowls, including last year's game in New Orleans that completed another undefeated season.
Again, the Utes had a bunch of gifted, hard-working athletes and coaches who were committed and knew what they were doing, just like TCU does this year. Their coaches, in fact, were better than BYU's.
Despite the limitations in the kinds and numbers of great athletes he can recruit, Mendenhall refused to lower expectations for BYU's program in his postgame remarks. He said the ultimate goal at BYU remains winning a national championship. Kind of like your kid wanting to be Tiger Woods, like you wanting your kid to be Tiger Woods.
Reason says it ain't happening.
He might, if he's fortunate, become Fred Funk.
Dreaming is one thing, foolishness is another.
And, so, BYU finds itself caught in its dreamy world, somewhere at the crossing of reality and fantasy. It wants to be something special, it wants to be a national champion, but it doesn't have the building blocks or the architects, or the inclination to change the things that limit its reach, to make it happen.
Not that it should change those limitations, if the school is fixed on drawing student-athletes committed to living by the Code. But if that's the case, it should adjust expectations. At a minimum, it should cut down on the pie-in-the-sky rhetoric.
The way things are now, a hundred Cougar players and a million faithful Cougar fans are angry and frustrated and confused by the space between what is fact and what is fiction, what is reality and what is a smoked pipe dream beyond good reason's grasp.
Bottom line: BYU should turn off What's Imagined Lane and head down What's Real Avenue and embrace what it is -- a fine academic institution that promotes clean living and love of religion, with a football team that wins, but, under its present direction, doesn't have -- and can't get -- enough athletes to reach its goal.
Mendenhall is a football coach, not a miracle worker.
Somewhere deep down, he knows that, and so should everybody else.
BYU has only lost five games in the last two seasons, but the Cougars have barely been competitive in those games:
|Oct. 24, 2009||TCU||38-7|
|Sept. 19, 2009||FSU||54-28|
|Dec. 20, 2008||Arizona||31-21|
|Nov. 22, 2008||Utah||48-24|
|Oct. 16, 2008||TCU||32-7|
BYU's schedule, with power ranking among all Division I programs from Jeff Sagarin
|Nov. 7||at Wyo., noon||107|
|Nov. 14||at N.M., noon||169|
|Nov. 21||AFA, 1:30 p.m.||53|
|Nov. 28||Utah, 3 p.m.||21|