Among what I consider the best six seasons in BYU history (1979, 1980, 1983, 1984, 1996, 2006), a case could be made for almost any order. Heck, my brother Don on a recent podcast said he thought 1985 should be in that top conversation as well.
Below is the case for the 1996 season, a record-breaking season filled with awesome play, 14 wins, a bowl controversy, and much more. Read on and let me know if you think I've got 1996 in the right spot.
Coach: LaVell Edwards
Ranking: 5th in the AP poll, 5th in the coaches' poll
Bowl: 19-15 win over Kansas State in the Cotton Bowl
Point Differential per game: 20.87
Opp. Winning %: .491
What you didn't know: TEs Itula Mili and Chad Lewis were both named First Team All-WAC. Mili was injured for parts of the season, and did not play in season's final 2 games and the Cotton Bowl. In his limited action, he caught 46 passes for 692 yards and 3 TDs. Lewis added 37 catches for 420 yards and 5 TDs.
Unlike almost every season since 1984, I have almost no memory of 1996 because I was on a mission. I had been at BYU for a decent 10-3 season in 1994, but missed the entire Steve Sarkisian era. I've seen the biggest games from this season on replay on BYUtv and other places, but I don't have the first-hand experience with this season as many of you do.
The season started off with a bang, a 41-37 victory over Texas A&M in Provo, an Aggies team that was ranked No. 13 coming into the season. The Cougars had come into the season unranked after a pretty mediocre 7-5 1995 season. Sarkisian was experienced after starting as a transfer the year before, but a 14-win season was hardly expected.
The Cougars rolled through a watered down WAC, with only a loss on the road to Washington (9-3), who would finished ranked No. 16, and a tight game against New Mexico (6-5) in which 3 turnovers almost sunk BYU against a mediocre team.
The drama started in the WAC Championship game against Wyoming (10-2). The Cougars came into the game ranked No. 6 in the country, the Cowboys No. 20, both teams with only one loss. The Cougars bounced out to a 13-0 lead, but the Cowboys outscored BYU 25-12 the rest of regulation. BYU needed a safety late in the 4th quarter and a FG as time expired to get the game into OT. BYU won on an Ethan Pochman FG after the Cowboys failed to score on their first possession of the extra period.
The drama shifted to waiting on the Bowl Alliance (the predecessor to the BCS, which only included the Orange, Fiesta and Sugar Bowls). BYU was ranked No. 5 in the country, but they would be passed over over in the Orange Bowl by two teams ranked below them in the polls: 10-2 Nebraska (ranked 6th) and 10-1 Virginia Tech (ranked 10th). The Hokies had played a relatively weak schedule in the Big East, not that much better than BYU's. VaTech's only loss of the season came against a very good Syracuse team that was led by Donovan McNabb. And they were the Big East champs.
Nebraska, despite the No. 6 ranking, is the one that doesn't make sense. The Cornhuskers lost to a 7-4 Texas team in the Big 12 Championships, but somehow only slipped 1 spot in the polls. It should have been the Cougars in that Orange Bowl against Virginia Tech, two stout defenses doing battle. And BYU would have been the first BCS buster before the BCS even existed.
But the outcome wasn't really that bad. The Cougars got to play on New Year's Day for the first time in school history, matched up against No. 14 Kansas State (9-2 coming into the game). The Wildcats had a great defense that gave up only 15.9 PPG, good for 11th in the nation. BYU also had a top 20 defense, led by WAC Defensive Player of the Year, Shay Muirbrook.
The Wildcat defense performed as advertised, holding BYU to zero points in the first three quarters (2 more points came on a Muirbrook safety). The BYU defense also performed as expected, holding KSU to 274 total yards. Muirbrook was a beast, with an amazing 6 sacks (including the aforementioned safety). He would be named Cotton Bowl MVP.
Sarkisian led two TD drives in the 4th quarter with two TDs, and the game was sealed by an Omarr Morgan interception at the 3-yard line with 55 seconds remaining.
In some ways, this season stands alone. By a strange mix of scheduling (a +1 from Hawaii, the Pigskin Classic against Texas A&M, the WAC Championship), the Cougars played 15 games, losing just one. The 14 wins is the most ever won by a college football team, equaled since then but not before. And playing more games means they had more chances to screw it up, which they didn't. The only loss, though not to a great team, was to a good Pac-10 team on the road.
Sarkisian was awesome in 1996 and I ranked this season the 6th best QB season at BYU since 1974. 4027 yards, 33 TDs, 12 INTs, 9.97 YPA, and good performances against the toughest opponents. Sarkisian had a ton of weapons, including a pair of all-conference TEs and future NFLers in Itula Mili and Chad Lewis, as well as WAC Freshman of the Year Ronney Jenkins, who had 1341 all-purpose yards. And don't forget leading rusher Brian McKenzie (950 yards). Both he and Jenkins averaged 5.7 YPC.
On the other side of the ball, the Cougars had a similar collection of defensive stars. As mentioned previously, Muirbrook was voted the WAC's best defensive player; he was ferocious, smart and fast, one of the best players to have ever laced up for the Cougars. He led the team in tackles (97) and sacks (9). He had two great linebackers around him (Brad Martin and Spencer Reid), and a very good defensive backfield anchored by Omarr Morgan (54 tackles and 4 INTs, not including the one in the Cotton Bowl).
There's not much to dislike about this team. The schedule is a mixed bag. Great wins over top 40 teams Kansas State, Texas A&M and Wyoming, but the rest of the schedule besides Washington was pretty weak.
What makes this season most memorable (especially for those that actually saw it) was the way the Cougars played in the WAC Championship Game and the Cotton Bowl. Against two good teams at the most pivotal moments, these Cougars delivered and created some of the greatest memories in the program's history. Did BYU get snubbed by the Bowl Alliance? Sure. Did Utah, Boise State, TCU and Hawaii benefit from the outcry this (and other) snubs caused that led to a more inclusive BCS? Sure. But landing in the Cotton Bowl was special, and looking back, this is one of the best three seasons of the past 40.