We're getting into the top ten, into the elite seasons in BYU football history. This is the point where some of the seasons overlap in quality to such a degree that it's almost impossible to distinguish them. But did I shrink from that challenge? Of course not; I'm a Cougar. So here are three more seasons, Part 7 of of my labor of love. As always, feel free to demolish me in the comments section.
Coach: Bronco Mendenhall
Ranking: 12th in the AP and Coaches polls; 14th in final BCS standings (before bowl game)
Bowl: 44-20 win over Oregon State in the Las Vegas Bowl
Point Differential per game: 13.92
Opp. Winning %: .491
What you didn't know: Max Hall followed John Beck as a 3-year starter at BYU, the only back-to-back 3-year starters in school history. Hall was 2-1 against Utah, and Beck was 1-2. Both won games against the Utes on the final play of the game.
The win over Oklahoma in the House That Jerry Built to open the 2009 season was one of the greatest wins in BYU history. Yes, I know Oklahoma finished 8-5, but all 5 of those losses were against top 30 teams. Don't let history be rewritten to show BYU didn't beat a very good Sooner team in their backyard.
Max Hall led the Cougars with a great season: 3500+ yards and 33 TDs while completing 67% of his passes. (I ranked it the 11th best QB season all-time.) The offense was also bolstered by Harvey Unga (5.2 YPC) and Dennis Pitta. The defense was good, anchored by Jan Jorgensen. And you can't discount Hall's heroics against Utah, a TD pass in OT to beat the rival.
So why not higher? The two losses were huge: a meltdown against Florida State (3 INTs by Hall), and a complete debacle against TCU (only 298 offensive yards, the lowest output of the season). I could buy an argument to move this team up a slot or two (or more) as all the teams between 9 and 20 in my rankings are separated by inches, not yards. But I believe they aren't better than any of the 11 teams above them.
Coach: Bronco Mendenhall
Ranking: 14th in the AP poll, 15th in the coaches poll, 18th in the final BCS (before the bowl)
Bowl: 17-16 win over UCLA in the Las Vegas Bowl
Point Differential per game: 11.54
Opp. Winning %: .515
What you didn't know: In the modern era, BYU has only once played the same team twice in a season. That was UCLA in 2007, first in a Sept. 8 loss in Los Angeles, the second coming in a bowl game victory in Las Vegas.
This team had one of the greatest runs in BYU history. After losing its second game @ UCLA (finished 6-7, but ranked 29th by Sports-Referece.com) and third game at Tulsa (finished 10-4, but a 65th in the same rankings), the Cougars won 10-straight games, though there were some very close calls along the way (including New Mexico, TCU, Utah and in the bowl game against UCLA).
The two games that stand out for me are TCU and Utah. The win over the Horned Frogs is the last time BYU has beat TCU. Yes, TCU was not the force it would become in later seasons, but it was one of best defenses BYU faced all season and Hall & Co. were able to put up 400+ yards. And Utah was another dramatic victory, with a Harvey Unga TD sealing it in the game's final minute.
This team had some flaws. They were pretty mediocre during the season's first 6-7 weeks, and they struggled to put away bad teams. They also had no real signature victory, as TCU and Utah were not top-25 type teams. So, unlike 2006 when they beat an 11-win TCU team and demolished mediocre Pac 10 teams, this team was not able to build on the previous year to become something better. If anything, they took a slight step backwards.
Coach: LaVell Edwards
Ranking: 13th in the AP poll
Bowl: 38-36 win over Washington State in the Holiday Bowl
Point Differential per game: 19.00
Opp. Winning %: .482
What you didn't know: The WAC's offensive and defensive players of the year in 1981, QB Jim McMahon and LB Kyle Whittingham (what's he doing now?), were both Cougars. Only two other times in modern BYU history have two BYU players won those conference honors in the same season: 1984 (QB Robbie Bosco and LB Kyle Morrell) and 1996 (QB Steve Sarkisian and LB Shay Muirbrook). Notice all three were QB-LB combos.
This is a strange season. One of BYU's losses was to UNLV (6-6), probably not a top 100 team in 1981. The other loss was more understandable, to a good 8-3 Wyoming team in Laramie. The Cougars also beat three top-40 teams: Utah, Hawaii and Washington State.
The team was led on offense by Jim McMahon, who completed almost 65% of his passes for more than 3500 yards and 30 TDs. Steve Young acted as a capable back-up, filling in for minor injuries and in garbage time; in that limited time, he finished fourth on the team in rushing yards (233).
The offense, in many ways, was the McMahon/Gordon Hudson show. The second-team all-WAC TE led the team in catches (67), yards (960), and receiving TDs (10). The running game was decent, though no runner eclipsed 500 yards rushing during the season.
The defense allowed less than 20 points a game, and was anchored by LB Kyle Whittingham, who had 132 total tackles, including 16 for loss, to go along with 7 sacks and a pair of interceptions. DE Brandon Flint, who did not make the all-WAC team, led the team with 13 sacks. Other defensive luminaries included DL Brad Anae (9 sacks) and DB Tom Holmoe (61 tackles and 3 INTs).
In some ways though, this is a team that should have faired better. With a pretty easy schedule and with all this talent, the team could have built on the great success of 1980 and run the table. Going undefeated is very hard, but this team had that potential; Cougar fans had to wait a few more years to see BYU do that.