PROVO, Utah -- A significant question BYU has to ask itself in this bold, new Year 3 world of independence: Can the Cougars win by running the ball and playing defense?
In other words, succeed by making themselves look as much like an SEC team as possible.
The question is valid philosophically on a number of levels: 1) Despite being in eight straight bowls under Bronco Mendenhall, BYU has never been to a BCS bowl while watching rivals Utah and Boise State define their programs by doing so; 2) The independent status makes the program an increasing outlier on the national landscape, especially with the playoff era debuting in 2014; 3) Dissatisfied with 2012, Mendenhall fired the entire offensive staff; 4) Most notably, in any decision to be made about whether it is in or out of the approaching College Football Playoff in any given season, BYU faces the same issue as the rest of the country. …
An SEC team is going to get the benefit of the doubt. I can prove that fact on an Etch A Sketch. Or, just consider recent history.
-- Alabama winning a national championship without even winning the SEC West outright in 2011.
-- Alabama losing huge games each of the last two Novembers and still having the juice to play in the BCS title game.
-- And this golden oldie: LSU losing twice but still making the game in 2007, which of course it won.
That's life in FBS at the moment. The SEC has captured those seven straight titles and Alabama will be going for three in a row on its own.
“Do we need to be more like them?” BYU offensive line coach Garett Tujague said of the SEC. “Absolutely, but still remain BYU.”
That's code for incorporating offensive coordinator Robert Anae's new hurry-up, no-huddle offense into the BYU's best-known tradition: Exciting aerial football backed by big-time quarterbacks. During Wednesday's media day we were reminded of what BYU once was. Former greats Steve Young, Gary Sheide, Robbie Bosco, Marc Wilson and Gifford Nielsen were in-studio here for a live BYUtv conversation with former coach LaVell Edwards about the school's quarterback legacy.
While no one believes BYU is about to rule the world again by throwing it all over the lot -- sophomore Taysom Hill has started two career games -- it would benefit the program by continuing to project an image of toughness. That's the way to get behind the velvet rope these days, the password at the speakeasy. BYU went a long way to talking its way to the front of the line last season by finishing No. 3 in total defense.
Linebacker Kyle Van Noy returns with some Clowney-like hype. That helps affect that benefit of the doubt -- if it ever comes to that -- over to BYU's side.
Mendenhall speculated that at this point, it might take two consecutive undefeated seasons for that to happen.
“Or two times in three years,” the coach said.
The schedule is certainly there. For this independence thing to work, BYU must actively seek tough games -- then win them. With ESPN as a broadcast and scheduling partner, at least the schedule part is taking shape.
The 2013 schedule features five ranked teams from 2012 (Texas, Utah State, Boise State, Wisconsin and Notre Dame) as well two ACC teams (Virginia, Georgia Tech) and the rivalry game with Utah.
“I don't think we could play in the [championship] game with anything more than one loss and that loss would probably have to be to a top-five team,” Mendenhall said with his typical candor. “Maybe Texas has a great year. I don't see much middle ground.”
AD Tom Holmoe is giddy after now being able to schedule meaningful November games when most teams are in the heart of the conference schedule. The news that USC signed up for a three-game series beginning in 2019 was perceived as a breakthrough.
“In terms of scheduling, early on I was wondering, ‘How in the world are we going to get games?'" Holmoe said. “Teams are going to be judged on their schedule. We're a good team to schedule. We're not a top-10 team. We're not a bottom-10 team. But we're a good name team and we'll bring fans and we'll be on TV.”
The decision to go independent had a huge religious component. The school is not doing this so much for pure profit but to push the school's Mormon mission. There is one game per year on BYUtv surrounded by significant football programming.
But the fact remains that playoff era access is going to be sketchy until BYU starts scheduling and beating top teams consistently. At certain times in the 12-year playoff deal, there will be one at-large spot available in the six CFP bowls if BYU doesn't qualify for the playoff.
“You have to be undefeated, which is the same access we had in the Mountain West,” Mendenhall said. “But what if you beat Texas? What if you beat Virginia? What if you beat Georgia Tech? What if you beat Houston? What if you beat Utah? What if you beat Boise State and you're undefeated. How are they going to keep us out?”
Which brings us back to the perception issue. Essentially, it is unlikely anytime soon that BYU will be the last undefeated team standing. In 1984, BYU was the only choice when Texas, Nebraska, Washington, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State lost significant November or bowl games. BYU beat a 6-5 Michigan in the Holiday Bowl to win the national championship.
Those Cougars were the last non-BCS conference school to win a championship.
Anae, an offensive lineman on that team, was asked if the Cougars were the best team in the country that year.
“I don't know,” Anae said humbly. “I had a huge sense of greatness when I was a player. Then I looked back and said, ‘Dang, I wasn't that good. … We never really thought of ourselves as a national contender.”
Last year's offense was ranked 60th nationally, 64th in rushing. It was just kind of there. Just a hunch, but the selection committee is going to want to see more balance -- hint: SEC imitation -- going forward.
Anae -- who coached under Mike Leach and Rich Rodriguez -- is the latest coach publicly declaring a military coup on time and space. He wants BYU to run plays as quickly as possible, as many as possible.
“If you kept a time on it,” said quarterbacks coach Jason Beck, “we're hoping 10 seconds or less. As fast as we can push it.”
Of course, if that speed translates to three-and-out in 30 seconds, that puts a lot more pressure on the defense.
“When BYU can rush for 100, 150, 200 yards, they're going to be hard to beat,” Beck said.
In Mendenhall's eight seasons, the Cougars have been at least consistent rushing for an average between 134 and 168 yards per game. In that span they've finished ranked no higher than 51st and no lower than 70th.
At the end of the day, Mendenhall can point to success -- all those bowls, all those bowl wins (six in eight years) and an average of more than nine wins per season.
“BYU's history of throwing the football is epic,” Tujague said. “I think the brand that coach Anae is coming in with, it's just more important, if not more important to run the football.”
Back to the head coach. Can BYU win running the ball and playing defense, if it has to?
“It can with a tempo that is difficult to keep up with,” Mendenhall said. “I care if we have a good enough defense to win and opponent can't hardly breathe at the end of the game because they're trying to keep up with our offense.”
In a private moment this week, Mendenhall admitted how hard it was to change the entire offensive staff. Former BYU quarterback Brandon Doman had been there all eight years under the head coach, replacing Anae as OC when he left for Arizona in 2011.
“Our staff was not producing the results I knew were possible,” Mendenhall said. “Basically, when it came to bowl week I just said, 'This just isn't going to work.' “
Now, it has to work, or begin to trend that way. The BCS succeeded in further separating the haves from the have nots. When a conference affiliation didn't make sense, BYU decided to go it alone.
“You look at the schedule that we have,” Anae said. “How could you argue against independence? For whatever reason there's no conference that wants to align with BYU. The ones that do, for whatever reason, BYU doesn't fit.
“I do know that everybody in college football looks for that Cinderella. Everybody, ever year. Who's the BCS buster? If would be pretty cool if it were us.”
BYU honks continue to believe that, philosophically, their school can't lose as an independent. It might be more accurate to say that, these days, it looks a lot like 1984. The Cougars have to win them all.