The 1980 Cougars were in the middle of one of the best three year stretches in BYU history, finishing 11-1 amidst three seasons in 1979, 1980 and 1981 when the team went 34-4. The team lost its opener against New Mexico, but never looked back afterward, scoring at least 28 points in the next 11 games and at least 40 points per game in the last six games of the season. The Cougars finished with the best points, best offensive yardage and bess passing yardage per game average in college football that season and produced one of the most thrilling bowl victories in school history over SMU in the Holiday Bowl. Here’s a look at the fourth-best BYU football season of all-time:
Biggest moment: SMU was a great program that season, headed up by the rushing combination of Eric Dickerson and Craig James that had romped through the Southwest Conference to the tune of 12 combined touchdowns and 1,824 combined yards rushing. The team finished with a just ok record of 8-4, but was dangerously talented offensively and jumped out to a 45-25 lead in the Holiday Bowl behind more than 300 yards rushing between Dickerson and James. With only a few minutes left, Jim McMahon led a comeback to come within six of SMU’s lead. The Cougars blocked a late punt and BYU took over on the 41-yard line. McMahon launched a Hail Mary into the end zone as time expired, completing a pass to tight end Clay Brown for a 46-45 victory, the first bowl victory in BYU’s history.
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Lowest point: The week one Cougars looked almost nothing like the rest of the year’s team, losing 25-21 to New Mexico. BYU’s point total was its lowest of the season and the Cougars defense gave up its third highest point total of the season outside of the SMU and Utah State games. Worse still, the New Mexico team from that season struggled to a 4-7 record, weakening BYU’s overall resume.
Season MVP: McMahon was the definition of a “gunslinger” that season, leading the Cougars to college football’s best scoring and passing offense. He threw 47 touchdowns to 18 interceptions, had 4,571 passing yards and finished the season with a 63 percent completion percentage. He also had a swagger at the quarterback position that BYU hadn’t seen before and hasn’t seen since.
Legacy: The 1980 BYU team kicked off more than a decade of postseason bowl appearances along with 1978 and 1979 and was the first bowl win in the Cougars’ history. McMahon was a prototypical passer and was the first of several talented signal callers that would succeed him in Provo under the 1980s Edwards era. The win over SMU also would lay the groundwork for more national exposure and was a brick in the foundation of the 1984 National Championship season.