Quickly try to name the top 8 winningest college football programs of the past 40 years. All-time powerhouses such as (in order) Nebraska, Oklahoma, Ohio State, and Michigan come right to mind, as do the dynasties from the Speed State. But wedged in the middle of college football’s elite is BYU, checking in at #4 with a record of 353-148-3 since 1974. Under the direction of legendary coach LaVell Edwards, the Cougars of Brigham Young University burst onto the national scene with their version of the west-coast offense, a productive aerial attack that earned them the nickname of “Quarterback U.” Edwards’ successful tenure reached the ultimate height in 1984, when the Cougars went an undefeated 13-0 and claimed the National Title. Critics everywhere questioned if that ’84 squad deserved the title due to a weak schedule and playing in a pre-New Year’s Day bowl game against a 6-5 Michigan squad.
Fast-forward 30 years, 2 coaches, a conference switch, a move to independence, and a new playoff system; the same questions linger. Is an undefeated BYU team deserving of a chance to play for the national championship?
Only once since the creation of the BCS has an undefeated power conference team been excluded from playing for a national title (2004 Auburn). With the championship format expanding from 2 teams to 4, this problem is most likely fixed for good. The issue here is that BYU is not in a power conference, and not in a lower-tier conference for that matter. In 2011 BYU became a Division 1 FBS Independent, free of all conference-affiliation and open to schedule whichever teams they chose. This ambiguity and lack of conference labeling adds yet another question mark to the Playoff Committee’s task of selecting four teams to play in the inaugural playoff.
Before diving into that issue, BYU first must run the table and do so in style. So far so good, as they trounced UConn, and then went into Austin, Texas and absolutely dominated the Longhorns 41-7. In fact, BYU did the same last year, rushing for 550 yards in a blowout that set Mack Brown’s hot seat at boiling temperatures. The current BYU offense doesn’t resemble its predecessors’ “Quarterback U” in the slightest, as this unit is defined by a punishing rushing attack. However, the man in charge is special enough to join the list of BYU QB legends, just for different reasons. Taysom Hill is a keen decision-maker with a knack for making the defense wrong. He is running the zone read option to perfection, and making efficient passes when needed. If Hill was able to perform like this against Charlie Strong’s Longhorn defense, look for even more success to come.
Under Mendenhall, the nasty, physical defense has been BYU’s defining quality. The high energy, unity, and intensity the Cougar defense plays with is quite inspiring and a joy to watch. Even with the loss of All-American playmaker Kyle Van Noy, the unit again looks fierce, and shut down Texas, a roster stocked with 4 and 5 star players. Mendenhall continues to maximize his players’ potential and motivate this never-give-an-inch unit.
Can BYU go undefeated? A quick look at the schedule shows that they do not play a single ranked team this season. However, several tough tests remain, both against non-AQ and power-conference teams. Virginia took UCLA to the wire on opening day, while California seems to have a pulse yet again after knocking off Northwestern. In addition to their ACC/Pac-12/Big12 opponents, BYU has a gauntlet that is essentially a “who’s who” of non-AQ football. Central Florida, the same Knights that beat Baylor in the Fiesta Bowl, are the favorites to win the American Conference (former Big East). Nevada and rival Utah State are both legit Mountain West Conference teams that can’t be scoffed at. And fittingly, a team attempting to break the system has to go through the blue turf of BCS Buster Boise State. I originally predicted 10-11 wins for this BYU team with Texas and Boise State as the top concerns. Given their destruction of the Burnt Orange and Boise’s lackluster start to 2014 post-Petersen, I am calling for BYU to run the table and finish 12-0.
Now, let the debates begin. How the College Football Playoff committee will handle a 12-0 BYU team is wildly unknown. This being the first year of the system, we have no previous year or precedent to benchmark from. While BYU isn’t in a Power Conference, its history, prestige, and schedule clearly place it above the Group of Five status. So if ever a team not named Notre Dame outside of the ACC/BigTen/Big12/SEC/Pac12 were to break through into the 4-team playoff, it has to be this 2014 BYU squad. We are just two games in and clearly the playoff outlook shifts weekly, but for hypothetical purposes lets attempt to fast-forward to early December. An undefeated Florida State is a lock for a bid, as are both undefeated or one-loss Pac-12 and SEC champs whoever they are. The fourth spot will come down to perhaps a 12-0 or 11-1 Oklahoma or Baylor, and a 12-0 BYU team. I think for BYU to jump into “the four” they will need some chaos in the Big 12, which is very possible given the league’s depth and round-robin format. If a cluster of 10-2 and 9-3 teams emerge from the Big12, and the BigTen continues to crumble, it could be 1984 all over again, with BYU earning a chance at college football glory.