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Monson: Were BYU, Utah ever among football’s elite?

Winning was easier in the Mountain West.

First Published Oct 16 2012 12:19 pm • Last Updated Oct 17 2012 12:12 am

A respected college football expert recently said in a radio interview that it would take Pac-12 neophyte Utah 25 years to make the Rose Bowl.

At the time, that sounded too long.

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At present, it sounds too short.

Before last season, Bronco Mendenhall said BYU’s goal as an independent was to win a national championship. He said he thought it was a reasonable and reachable goal in the not-too-distant future.

At the time, that sounded ridiculous.

At present, it sounds more ridiculous.

As much as all of us around here, at one time or another, have hated the snobbery of college football’s power structure and power leagues, it’s time to confess that some of that snobbery is warranted. Winning the old Mountain West was a whole lot easier than conquering the modern Pac-12. And BYU’s struggles over the past two seasons as an independent, losing to teams such as Texas, TCU, Utah, Boise State and Oregon State, have revealed its shortcomings as a supposed relevant player.

The respective records of the Utes (2-4, 0-3) and Cougars (4-3) indicate what none of us wanted to admit back in the day, but all of us are coming around to now: These teams are real good at beating lesser opponents and not good at beating greater ones. Utah has taken out Northern Colorado and BYU, and lost to Utah State, Arizona State, USC and UCLA. Up next: undefeated Oregon State. BYU, true to its form, beat weaklings Washington State, Weber State and Hawaii, and edged Utah State. Its losses: Utah, Boise State and Oregon State. Up next: undefeated Notre Dame.

The same thing happened last season, when the Utes dropped their first four league games and the Cougars lost to credible opponents, then saved appearances and won region by running through Jordan, Granger, Brighton and Hunter high schools.

The present and recent past is spoken for. A question for the ages is, was it always this way? Were we deceiving ourselves about the relative quality of Utah and BYU teams of the past? That 2008 Ute team that went unbeaten in the MWC and rolled past Alabama in the Sugar Bowl — would it have won the Pac-10? Would it have gone on the road to beat USC and Oregon and Stanford, not just in the singular but in the collective, totaled up week after week after week? How would the 2004 team have done in the SEC? How would BYU’s national championship team have fared in a major conference?

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Maybe with quarterbacks like Alex Smith and Robbie Bosco, they might have had a better chance than what we’re seeing now with the messed-over quarterback situations at each school. Is it fair, though, to call all of the accomplishments of the past into question on account of the difficulties that have come to these programs against better competition?

It makes you wonder.

LaVell Edwards had a terrific winning percentage — until it came to bowl games, especially bowl games against big-time teams. Urban Meyer blew through here so quickly, it’s hard to say what he might have done. Kyle Whittingham and Bronco Mendenhall have winning records in bowl games, but many of those victories came in minor bowls against less-than-scintillating opponents. In the past two regular seasons, Whittingham has lost to USC twice, Washington, Arizona State twice, Cal, Colorado, UCLA and Utah State. Mendenhall has whiffed almost every time his team has played a quality name opponent, often by lopsided scores.

That’s the bad news.

The better news is this: Last weekend, while Utah was playing against UCLA at the Rose Bowl, BYU was playing host to highly ranked Oregon State. This weekend, Utah plays at Oregon State and BYU faces the Irish at Notre Dame Stadium. Both opponents are ranked among the nation’s best teams.

So, there’s that. It beats the bejeebers out of a regular … boring … snoozy … pass-the-Vivarin diet of New Mexico, Wyoming, UNLV and Colorado State. Going to the Pac-12 has given the Utes more than just additional losses and a double-scoop of reality, it’s given their fans a mouthful of big-time college football, the chance to see how their team actually measures up, and huge entertainment value. BYU’s independent schedule still has its gaping holes, but when it’s good, it’s real good. Next year’s slate includes Texas, Boise State, Utah State, Georgia Tech, Houston, Wisconsin and Notre Dame.

With that kind of wind in their faces, if the Cougars and Utes ever find a way to win nine or 10 games, while losing two or three, it not only would be a gas for their fans, it would be a major step toward legitimacy, legitimacy that often — always — eluded them in the success of their pasts.

GORDON MONSON hosts "The Big Show" weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 1280 AM and 97.5 FM The Zone. Twitter: @GordonMonson.

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