Gordon Monson: Can unbeaten BYU and its players, coaches and fans handle the truth? Yeah, but.

BYU tight end Isaac Rex (83) celebrates his touchdown against Troy during the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 26, 2020, in Provo, Utah. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, Pool)

Before anybody gets carried away here — oops, too late? — this is a reminder to BYU football, its players, its coaches and fans, to remember the past, to remember that there’s a big ol' “yeah, but” attached to pretty much everything the Cougars achieve this season, even if what they achieve is — dare we use the word anymore? — perfect.

There’s nothing wrong with that “yeah, but” appendage, at least nothing for which to blame BYU.

Considering what athletic director Tom Holmoe was faced with mere weeks ago, the fact that BYU was able to save its season after most of its rather impressive original independent schedule crumbled away in the face of a pandemic, the “yeah, but” — the revised schedule — should fall in the same category as just another gorgeous Zach Wilson 30-yard spinner down the field.

It just is … yeah, but.

After three games, the Cougars' dominance against bad teams has turned heads, just like it did back in the day, 20 to 30 to 40 years ago. Their offense is crushing opposing defenses, averaging 586 yards per game, including 359 passing yards. They have a talented quarterback who may one day play in the NFL, who is setting up behind a wall of an offensive line, looking more comfortable than Brad Pitt on his latest movie set. They have a defense that is holding opposing offenses to 165 yards per game, including just 71 yards rushing. They have a national ranking — No. 15 — in both primary polls, and their head coach is focused on his team dialing in on the next patsy on the schedule, making UTSA out to be Alabama or Georgia, and nothing else.

Kalani Sitake hit all the right notes when he talked about his players this week, essentially saying they had much yet to prove and they had accomplished nothing significant so far.

And he’s right.

BYU in 2020 is like BYU in what LaVell Edwards used to call “the glory years.”

BYU beat Navy, 55-3, beat Troy, 48-7, beat Louisiana Tech, 45-14. This week, it will beat UTSA by a similar score.

Here’s the truth: The Cougars are really good. And their opponents, with a couple of exceptions, are not. That’s the story, the history, of BYU football.

There are three remaining games on the revamped schedule, mixed among Texas State, Western Kentucky and North Alabama, that could pose a challenge — Boise State, San Diego State and Houston.


At LaVell Edwards Stadium

When • Saturday, 1:30 p.m.


It’s reminiscent of the schedules of 12-1 seasons of the past, even the 13-0 season that brought the Cougars their national championship in 1984, back when BYU revolutionized the passing game inside of college football, playing in the WAC, against New Mexico and UTEP and Hawaii and Colorado State.

Let’s say it the way it is: Most of BYU’s opponents weren’t top level — and the Cougars punished many of them for it, running up scores in the high-on-the-hill neighborhood of 83-7. The poor El Paso Miners got caved in on that sorry lopsided day.

No Cougar wants to dwell on it, but BYU football was built on that kind of stuff. Crushing lousy teams, squeaking by good ones, and, on occasion, defeating name opponents. The 28-21 home win over Miami in 1990 stands out as one of the program’s best moments ever. It just wasn’t the norm.

The Cougars were capable of beating substandard foes, and rising up here and there. They had savvy, brilliant coaches — Edwards, Doug Scovil, Norm Chow, Mike Holmgren and the like — who utilized a handful of extraordinary players — often quarterbacks — with quality guys who formed good teams, good for who they were for.

They typically were not great.

And here’s why: They did not face the kind of competition that would qualify them as great. Remember, LaVell’s bowl record was 7-14-1. Look at who BYU beat in its infamous national championship year (1984), before which it had already won eight straight WAC titles: Pitt and Baylor teams that ended with losing records, Tulsa, Hawaii, Colorado State, Wyoming, Air Force, New Mexico, UTEP, San Diego State, Utah, Utah State, Michigan.

The Cougars were imperfectly perfect. Or was it perfectly imperfect? “We felt like we had to win by 40 every week,” Blaine Fowler, a backup QB on that title team, once said. Only two of those opponents finished with seven or more wins — Air Force and Hawaii. So, what exactly did BYU prove that season?

Barry Switzer, Oklahoma’s coach in ’84, infamously ridiculed BYU, deeming the Cougars unworthy of a national title. He admitted in later years that BYU was a good team, but looking back on what he said at the time, after Washington beat his Sooners in a major bowl, he was probably right: “Washington deserves to be No. 1. They are 11-1, have the next-best record, and I guarantee you they are a better team than Brigham Young.”

The question then becomes whether what William Munny said — in the film Unforgiven: “Deserve’s got nothing to do with it” — properly applies to college football.

Should the best teams be the ones that are rewarded in polls and postseason play? Can a winning team be the best if it didn’t play a hefty schedule of quality opponents? What if a squad beats a load of mediocre teams by 40?

At the time, I bought into how great undefeated BYU was, just like I bought into how great undefeated Utah was in 2004 and 2008. But after watching the way the Utes struggled in their adjustment to playing in the Pac-12, I’ve learned that playing a difficult schedule makes the difference in determining the real worthiness of a team.

None of those unbeaten teams would have been unbeaten playing in a P5 conference. That’s the belief here. Facing strong competition week in and week out challenges a group in a way that playing a weaker schedule, even with a few gems thrown in, cannot. Those teams, and many other BYU teams in other years, had a puncher’s chance against better teams, but not on a regular basis.

It’s not even their fault, really, because if they were actually included in a P5 league, with improved recruiting and better depth and more money, they’d likely grow into a stronger program, much the way Utah has in the Pac-12.

Instead, this season, the Cougars lost that tough schedule — again, not their fault — one that was difficult enough to have proved their worthiness with enough winning. Too bad, because, just like BYU teams of old, this one is good. It’s real good.

But even if they beat all their opponents by four or five or six touchdowns, even if there are NFL players scattered in the trenches and behind center, the competition simply isn’t formidable enough to make what is good what it otherwise might have been — great.

GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 2-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.

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