Regardless of what’s happening elsewhere in college football, there could be no celebrating the demise of the Bowl Championship Series on the BYU campus.
Considering how the Cougars have not taken advantage of the system’s opportunities to play in top-tier games, nobody could complain about a lack of access or BYU’s being denied a shot at a national championship lately.
So the four-team playoff format that will go into effect in 2014 hardly changes anything for BYU. To get where they want to go, the Cougars still have to do something they haven’t done in recent history.
"I know we’ll have to be undefeated, against very good teams … and maybe have to do it twice," coach Bronco Mendenhall said Wednesday, during the BYU Football Media Day.
Earning an actual championship opportunity "just became two teams easier," as offensive coordinator Brandon Doman observed. Yet if the Cougars have never finished in the top 10 in the BCS era, how can they break into the top four?
In a sense, the standards are becoming higher for the Cougars — and everybody else at their level. Becoming truly relevant in college football now will require making the playoffs, not merely qualifying for one of the five BCS games.
There’s no guarantee that a Pac-12 champion always would merit a top-four spot, but Utah certainly is well positioned for that opportunity. As for Utah State, the BCS built-in access that the Mountain West enjoyed will be gone soon after the Aggies arrive next year, although they presumably will benefit from playoff revenue.
The timing of all this is reasonably good for BYU, all considered. The playoff format validates the school’s decision to become independent, rather than stay in the Mountain West, because of a strength-of-schedule factor.
BYU obviously would have gained nothing by joining the Big East. The Big 12 may offer some advantages eventually, but no matter where BYU is based, this is the issue: The Cougars have to start winning games they’re not supposed to win.
This season’s schedule is a perfect example. The traditional model suggests BYU will win eight regular-season games in 2012, while losing at Utah, Boise State, Notre Dame and Georgia Tech. At some point, the Cougars have to advance to a point of beating those teams on the road, and Mendenhall knows it.
He’s treating his eighth season as a new era, reviewing every aspect of the program and increasing standards of performance.
"There’s nothing that’s not fair game right now," he said. "The idea of being satisfied or staying status quo is the exact opposite of what I feel currently. … To put it bluntly, there’s going to be more expected now than ever before."
That reflects the blessing and curse of BYU’s consistency. Mendenhall’s record is 66-24, and by whatever criteria you want to use, his teams really have lost only a couple of games as the superior team: to Utah in 2005, when Ute quarterback Brian Johnson was injured, and to a Utah State team that finished with a losing record in 2010.
Conversely, they’ve rarely created a stir by winning. The only such examples are beating Texas Christian on the road in ’06 and upsetting Oklahoma in the ’09 opener.
Senior quarterback Riley Nelson believes those breakthroughs occur when "you ain’t scared … you go out there with that fearless mentality," he said. "It’s a big bite to chew, but I feel like we’re taking the necessary steps to do it."
By 2014, when he’s hoping to be enrolled in medical school, Nelson can only hope those steps are taking his old team somewhere.
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