Provo • Because they had a bye this weekend and don't play again until Saturday at Wisconsin, the BYU Cougars had some time to do a little thinking the past few days after winning their last five college football games.
The primary theme: What if?
You know, what if BYU had defeated an abysmal Virginia team in that wacky, weather-delayed, rain-plagued opener in Charlottesville? And what if the Cougars had gotten past rival Utah in Week 3, after pounding now-surging Texas 40-21 in their home opener?
A win over either of those teams, let alone both, would likely have put BYU in the national rankings, and made much-improved quarterback Taysom Hill the toast of the town.
"It would be getting kind of crazy around here, wouldn't it?" said BYU linebackers coach Kelly Poppinga.
He should know. Poppinga was a member of the last two BYU teams that started 1-2 and then reeled off 10 straight wins, in 2006 and 2007. The Cougars didn't sniff the Bowl Championship Series back then, settling for Las Vegas Bowl bids as the Mountain West Conference champs.
The difference in 2013 is that, unlike six and seven years ago, BYU still has opponents on its November schedule No. 24 Wisconsin and No. 25 Notre Dame that can give it a sizable boost if it can win in Madison on Saturday and South Bend on Nov. 23.
"We are playing better teams down the stretch," Poppinga acknowledged.
Because of that, and as crazy as it sounds now after the 19-16 loss to Virginia (2-7) and 20-13 loss to Utah (4-4), the Cougars (6-2) are still keeping an eye on the BCS standings, where they sit 28th.
"Finish out the season strong, and if the cards play out right, [make] a BCS run," senior receiver Cody Hoffman said Monday, when asked how he wants to finish his career after setting the school record for touchdown receptions, 31, with a 4-yard scoring catch in the 37-20 win over Boise State on Oct. 25.
Sure, it's a pipe dream, the longest of long shots. No team from outside the six automatic-qualifying conferences has made a BCS game with two losses, and only one Northern Illinois, last year has busted the BCS with one loss.
It would take an incredible sequence of events, something just short of impossible non-BCS undefeateds Fresno State and NIU would have to lose, for starters but the Cougars can dream, can't they?
If nothing else, they can think about what might have been, and be thankful for their independent status.
Remember, the Cougars weren't even dreaming about playing in a BCS game when they were 6-2 heading into November in 2006 and 2009 and 5-2 entering the regular season's final month in 2007. They are now, if only slightly, despite having accepted an invitation after the win over Boise State to play in the Fight Hunger Bowl in San Francisco on Dec. 27.
A clause in the contract allows BYU to get out of that postseason game at AT&T Park if it gets a BCS bid in the final year of the BCS system before college football moves to a four-team playoff.
"I mean, there is always going to be talk," Hoffman said, when asked if the Cougars really still have BCS aspirations. "We are always going to keep our hopes and dreams alive and not say we are completely out of the picture. We are going to continue to strive for it whether we can [make it] or not."
After BYU walloped nationally respected Boise State, a few national writers, including Dave Miller of the National Football Post, suggested that the Cougars could develop into a BCS candidate if they win at Wisconsin, Notre Dame and Nevada in November. A home win over FCS Idaho State in two weeks is a given.
BYU "would be a very attractive candidate at 10-2 because of the school's strong fan base that travels well," Miller noted. "If Northern Illinois and Fresno State falter, a 10-2 BYU team could find itself in the BCS at-large mix, possibly the Fiesta Bowl [In Glendale, Ariz.] which picks last in the selection process."
The four at-large bids are doled out by the bowl committees; to be eligible to be picked, independent BYU would have to finish in the top 12 of the BCS standings or in the top 16 and ahead of one of the AQ conference champions.
Certainly, it all goes poof if the Cougars can't get past Wisconsin and first-year Badgers coach Gary Andersen, who was 1-3 against BYU while at Utah State. A win at Notre Dame appears easier, if only slightly.
"The [national] validation comes by playing well against the best teams on the biggest stages," Mendenhall said. "Our whole schedule this year has been to increase visibility and exposure, but also I would say our reputation from not only being a top 25 team, to more. We are positioned pretty well to play well at Wisconsin. If we do that, then we will see who is next and we will just keep going. But it becomes intriguing about now."
Grading the Cougars
Offense B+ • On improvement alone, we could justify giving the Cougars an A, after the horrendous opener at Virginia. Lately, the only problem has been inconsistency big first halves against Georgia Tech, Houston and Boise State followed by lackluster showing in the final 30 minutes. Still an offense that ranks 13th in the country is doing something right.
Defense B • Giving the BYU offense a better grade than its defense would have seemed unimaginable after last year's debacle, but that's what has happened in Provo. The defense is still among the stingiest at giving up points in the country ranking 27th but was gouged time and against by Houston and gave up nearly 500 yards last week to Boise State and its backup quarterback.
Special Teams B- • Kicker Justin Sorensen has improved immensely, making 14 of 17 field goal attempts and all 29 of his PAT tries two-thirds of the way through his senior year. As a whole, the unit has been penalty-prone, and giving up a return for a touchdown to Houston made that game more strenuous than it should have been.
Coaching B- • Coach Bronco Mendenhall deserves credit for revamping his offensive staff, and although the results weren't apparent early, the turnaround there has been remarkable. Losing at lowly Virginia and at home to a 4-4 Utah team, again, was inexcusable.
BYU in the national rankings
Ranking service Rank
BCS rankings 28th
Associated Press Top 25 T28th
USA Today Coaches Poll T30th
CBS Sports 29th
Jeff Sagarin Rankings 24th