Gordon Monson: How good is BYU, really? Maybe it doesn’t matter.
(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The BYU cheer team takes to the field before the game against Texas State during an NCAA college football game at LavVell Edwards Stadium, Saturday, oct. 24, 2020, in Provo, Utah.
Over the past decade, BYU’s been doing things all wrong.
If the 2020 season has revealed anything, it is that.
The Cougars are 6-0. They’re ranked 11th in the AP poll and 10th in the coaches'. Their fans are fired up. If it weren’t for a pandemic, their stadium would be filled to the brim for every game. They’ve received increased attention from media, from coast to coast. Interest is high in BYU football.
And they haven’t played anybody of significance.
That’s been repeated a gazillion times, including from this corner, not because anybody wants to rip or ridicule the Cougars just for ripping’s and ridiculing’s sake. It’s because that fact is fundamental to the narrative this season. Everything BYU is doing, all its wins, all its eye-popping stats, all its offensive and defensive prowess, must be beamed through that prism.
There are likely a good number of quality teams that had they played Navy, Troy, Louisiana Tech, UTSA, Houston and Texas State would be unbeaten right now. How many would have thrashed them the way BYU has is a lower number, particularly since most of them do not have a quarterback playing at the level Zach Wilson is playing. But even that is fogged up a bit.
It’s obvious to anyone who views this whole thing objectively that a quarterback facing those defenses is bound to have greater success than one facing Georgia’s D or Ohio State’s or Alabama’s. Even Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence, the favorite to win the Heisman this season, is going up against stronger resistance in the watered down ACC. That league might be compromised, but not to the subterranean level from which the Cougars are benefiting.
Much of this sounds accusatory, but that’s not how it’s meant.
PERFECTION (SO FAR)
BYU’s 2020 results:
BYU 55, Navy 3
BYU 48, Troy 7
BYU 45, Louisiana Tech 14
BYU 27, UTSA 20
BYU 43, Houston 26
BYU 52, Texas State 14
BYU has done what it can to provide whatever season it can for its players and program. This, including upcoming Western Kentucky and North Alabama, is what it was left with. North Alabama and Houston — no shame in playing the other Cougars — were already on the schedule before COVID ravaged it, but that was in addition to Utah, Arizona State, Stanford, Michigan State, Minnesota, Missouri, et al.
Many have wondered how these Cougars would do had they played their original schedule. It would have been interesting to find out. But, apparently, unnecessary for BYU to be highly regarded. It could be true that some poll voters are rewarding — or at least forgiving — the Cougars for their weak slate, knowing what the program has been through in a most unusual time and season.
But it might also be that winning of any kind against anyone still carries weight, no matter who you play, who you beat, who you crush.
And that’s the key here. It’s smart, not cowardly. OK, maybe it’s both.
Pretty much everyone understands bits and pieces of why BYU decided a decade ago to bail on the Mountain West to become an independent. Utah was headed to the Pac-12, TCU eventually to the Big 12, and the Cougars, left in the lurch, were looking to find a higher orbit than staying in the suddenly less-than-atmospheric remains of the MWC. BYU wanted more exposure, more money, more prestige.
The problem was, the Cougars weren’t competitively ready to make that transition. They wanted to play better teams with better players from better leagues with better results. They pounded the worn drum: You can’t be the best if you don’t beat the best.
But BYU wasn’t the best, wasn’t close to being the best, not week in and week out, and the results proved it. The Cougars were playing P5 teams without the advantage of being a P5 team in a P5 league, from which they could have gained greater resources and recruited at a greater level, thereby catching up athletically.
A review of the emphasis and results in independence of playing stronger teams brought some nice wins scattered here and there, but more losses. As BYU fell to the better teams in the early part of its annual schedule, it stirred considerably less interest among its fans, especially for later games against poor teams, all of which was made apparent in dwindling attendance. Even the players seemed less than inspired, losing to teams that shouldn’t have beaten them.
Basically, fans could now watch BYU on some version of ESPN, but … who wanted to?
There was no league championship for which to play, no great record to sustain, nothing much to prove. It positioned the Cougars conveniently to jump to a P5 league, if one invited them in, but … we all know how that turned out. What was left over was a program living off fumes of a winning past which resulted in a failed ad campaign: BYU presented for BYU’s sake.
Before this season, as an independent, the Cougars had compiled a 17-27 record against P5 teams. Overall, they were 70-47.
What 2020 has brought with all its winning is a stir of the imagination, a bunch of victories against mostly substandard teams and no killjoy losses against good ones. And just like in what LaVell Edwards used to call the “glory years,” when BYU was able to beat mostly inferior teams and maybe steal a couple wins over better competition, the Cougars have recaptured the attention of college football.
They’re not going to the CFP. Everyone knows that.
But they are stirring that imagination.
Which is to say, the move to independence has been a net negative.
Playing the best, playing the better, has left BYU listing. Under Kalani Sitake, it finally has helped create this year’s team, which looks good, especially led by Wilson and a group of more improved athletes. There is that, and it’s duly noted.
But the question becomes: Is it an advantage for BYU football to play a lesser schedule and thrive, to conjure hopeful thought, and maybe go undefeated, or close to it, with a tough game or two mixed in, rather than front load a month or two of P5 teams and erase hope, suffering the consequences, losing some and then bumping and skidding through a collection of mediocre-to-bad teams to close the campaign out?
Another way to ask it is: Should they reattach themselves to a G5 conference, win a slew of games, knock off a toughie or two, and have observers speculate as to what they might have done in a P5, without the proof to say they couldn’t have done it?
Yeah, yeah, sounds a little like … can’t win, don’t try.
But trying to be a P5 team without being in a P5 league, without the aforementioned recruiting and money edges that association gives, is difficult, especially for players and fans stuck in independence who once they endure a loss or two or three or four or five have less to look forward to and no title to win.
If they are undefeated, though, even while playing teams Bryant Gumbel and Barry Switzer would disapprove of and disregard, they make people think and wonder. Particularly if they are an entertaining, high-scoring outfit, too. They give themselves a chance at dreaming big.
That’s what BYU has done this season, however good they really are.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 2-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.