BYU Football at A Crossroads

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The O in October stands for the total of wins with which BYU football will conclude the month.

A Top 20 team with a Heisman Trophy dark horse when September ended, BYU finished a winless October Friday with its fourth consecutive loss, 55-30 at Boise State.

On a month in which horror movies are popular, Cougars faithful only needed to watch what unfolded on the field to be terrified. Taysom Hill’s Heisman candidacy and season both ended on Oct. 3 when he broke his leg against Utah State.

Certainly Hill’s absence made a profound impact on BYU. The Cougars likely would have won at least one of the four games they lost this month with Hill sidelined. Add a healthy Jamaal Williams at running back, who looked good against Boise State, and the BYU offense is much more effective than it performed over the last four weeks.

But unless Hill or Williams were Bronco Mendenhall’s secret weapons for a sputtering defense, there was no way BYU was finishing this month undefeated and ranked. And the Playoff was always a pipe dream, but more on that in a moment.

Hill was outstanding before he was sidelined. However, consider that the 55 points BYU gave up to Boise State were the high point–or low point, depending on perspective–of a five-game stretch over which the Cougars allowed opponents 30-plus points.

BYU’s problem is defense, a stark contrast from the previous three seasons during which the Cougars were among the nation’s most fearsome squads on that side of the ball.

Nick Howell took over defensive play-calling duties prior to the season, a job Mendenhall handled from midway through the 2010 season through 2013.

Coincidentally–or not–2010 was the last time a BYU team was struggling as badly as this year’s version. The Cougars fell to 1-4 on Oct. 1 of that season after a 31-16 loss to Utah State.

BYU rallied from the abysmal start to reach, and win, the New Mexico Bowl.

The Cougars are on the opposite trajectory now, but should come out of the tailspin in November. BYU plays a weak slate in the regular season’s final month, starting next week at Middle Tennessee State. The Cougars then get a bye week before a two-game home-stand that opens with UNLV. BYU should snap its three-game losing streak to Mountain West opponents in that one.

Then, the Cougars face juggernaut Savannah State. Perhaps BYU is trying to attract games with SEC opponents by scheduling week-before-Thanksgiving dates like an SEC team, but the Alabamas and Auburns of the world can get away it because marquee games book-end those cupcakes.

In BYU’s defense, it does conclude the regular season with a Pac-12 team, vastly improved Cal. However, the Golden Bears are prime candidates to put up 70 points on the Cougars’ secondary, the most glaring weakness of this team amid its current skid.

Win or lose at Cal, BYU should finish 7-5 and in a bowl game–the same bowl game it was destined for prior to October.
Miami_Beach_Bowl
As part of its independence, BYU is contractually bound to particular postseason dates. This year, it’s the inaugural Miami Beach Bowl, in which the Cougars face an opponent from the American. It will be the third opponent from that conference BYU sees this year, just one matchup fewer than the Cougars’ four dates against the Mountain West.

Now, BYU could have eschewed the Miami Beach Bowl for a Playoff invitation in much the same way I could leave this blog if I was named president. That is to say, in no hypothetical scenario was it happening.

Had BYU’s undefeated season rolled on, the Cougars would have had a stronger case than, say, Marshall. Otherwise, BYU was staking its reputation to wins over teams (Texas, Virginia) that UCLA was moved down several spots in the polls for not beating by wide enough margins.

All that is now irrelevant since BYU has gone 0-4, with all four losses coming to Group of Five opponents. At its worst, this team is a bad mid-major.

At its best, like in August and September of this season, BYU is a good mid-major. There’s no shame in that distinction, but that’s not the grandeur the BYU athletic department envisioned when it went independent.

BYU football wants to establish itself as a power program–needs to establish itself as a power program–but it can’t do so in its current state. All this losing skid does is reinforce the decisions of the ACC and SEC to dismiss BYU for the purpose of power scheduling.