There are some tough calls on this list. Can BYU's lone Heisman-winning season not be in the top 6? It can, because of three losses. And was 1985 really a top 10 season with a loss to 1-10 UTEP on the resume? Yes, when you factor in the entire season.
In Part 8 of this series, I lay out three of the most fascinating seasons in the team's history. An underrated 1977 team, an overrated (if just slightly) 1990 team, and an enigmatic 1985 team that looks bad sitting next to 1984, but looks fantastic sitting next to most seasons. Read on, and feel free to rip me apart (or more appropriately, rip my rankings apart) in the comments section below. If you're new to the series, go back and see all my rankings using the links below.
Coach: LaVell Edwards
Ranking: 20th in the AP poll
Point Differential per game: 24.36
Opp. Winning %: .393
What you didn't know: Marc Wilson was named WAC offensive player of the year despite only attempting 60% of the team's passes during the season. Wilson replaced the injured Gifford Nielsen part way through the season.
This season may seem high, and I understand why you may think I elevated it too much. But it's all about context. Yes, there was no bowl game, but there were only 14 bowls that season, and the WAC only sent one team to a bowl (co-WAC champ Arizona State went to the Fiesta Bowl and lost to Penn State). For the aforementioned context, there were 33 bowls this past season. There's no doubt that the 1977 Cougars would have been going to a bowl had it been 2011.
This team was dominant, outscoring its opponents by almost 25 points a game. It was a combination of one of the most potent offenses in college football, and (at least statistically) one of six best defenses in school history. Besides WAC Offensive Player of Year Marc Wilson (2400 yards, 24 TDs), the offense was also driven by 1st-team All-WAC running back Todd Christensen, who had almost 1,000 all-purpose yards and 8 TDs. The defense included First Team All-WAC performers DL Mekeli Ieremia, LB Mark Bernsten, DB Jason Coloma. DE Matt Mendhenall (brother of Bronco), who was Honorable Mention All-WAC, was a stand-out as a sophomore back from his mission providing 64 total tackles and a team-leading 11 sacks.
The schedule was not very difficult, with very understandable loss (at Arizona State) and one perplexing one (at 2-9 Oregon State). The best win of the season was against a very good Colorado State team.
What separates this season from some of the seasons behind it is the way this team dominated, except for three road games (the aforementioned games and a 10-7 win over Wyoming in Laramie). And if they play the Sun Devils in Provo or on a neutral field, the Cougars would have been in the Fiesta Bowl playing Penn State, and a 10-1 season would have put them close to the AP top 10 and my top 5.
But this usually dominant team didn't beat Arizona State and had a humiliating blip against the Beavers. So it was a great season, good enough for No. 9 on my list.
Coach: LaVell Edwards
Ranking: 22nd in the AP poll, 17th in the coaches' poll
Bowl: 65-14 loss to Texas A&M in the Holiday Bowl
Point Differential per game: 13.38
Opp. Winning %: .539
What you didn't know: According to Sports-Reference.com, two of BYU's losses this season (at Oregon and against Texas A&M in the Holiday Bowl) came against top 25 teams (according to their computer rankings). The third loss came against Hawaii, ranked just 47th. Besides beating Miami (ranked No. 1 by Sports-Reference), BYU's only other victory against a top 40 opponent was against San Diego State.
I'll cop to this: this season makes the top ten for two reasons. First, BYU's stunning victory over Miami (FL) to start the year. The Hurricanes were the reigning national champions, ranked No. 1 in the country, and in the midst of one of the greatest modern NCAA football runs: from 1983-1992, Miami won three national championships and finished in the AP top 10 for each of those seasons, except for 1984. And the mighty Goliath came to Provo to be slain by David, played in this movie by a diminutive Texan named Ty Detmer.
Second, Detmer's historic season, including winning the school's sole Heisman trophy. Was 1990 the best season a QB has had at BYU? I don't believe it was even Detmer's best season, and meaningfully behind some of the other great seasons (Jim McMahon in 1980 and 1981, Steve Young in 1983, and even Steve Sarkisian in 1996). But he won the Heisman. A BYU Cougar won the Heisman.
The season does have some major blemishes. Losing to a good Oregon team in Eugene? Understandable certainly, but it hurts this season. Losing to a mediocre Hawaii team in Honolulu? Somewhat understandable, but the turnovers and porous defense hurt.
And then there was the humiliation against a good Texas A&M team in the Holiday Bowl, a 65-14 drumming that still rings in my ears. The vaunted BYU offense couldn't break 200 total yards, Detmer was injured and his back-up Joe Evans had to play part of the game. (Evans threw a total of 25 passes in the BYU career, 9 of them in this game.)
This season, with the win over Miami and the Heisman trophy could have been top 5 maybe top 3. But the poor play in three games makes this season, despite all of its fond memories, come in at No. 8.
Coach: LaVell Edwards
Ranking: 16th in the AP poll, 17th in the coaches' poll
Bowl: 10-7 loss to Ohio State in the Citrus Bowl
Point Differential per game: 20.71
Opp. Winning %: .539
What you didn't know: The 1984 and 1985 seasons were very similar statistically. Both teams averaged ~34 points and game and gave up ~13. The difference was the schedule. In 1984, the Cougars played only one team with 8 or more wins (Hawaii). In 1985, the Cougars played four teams with 8+ victories (UCLA, Air Force, Utah and Ohio State).
The year after the national championship started on a high note. The Cougars started the season beating Boston College 28-14 in the Kick-Off Classic. The Eagles were ranked No. 17 in the AP poll coming into the season, and BYU climbed two spots to No. 8 after the impressive win.
But the win wasn't as impressive as it seemed, as BC stumbled to a 4-8 record. The streak of 25 straight victories would come to an end the next week in Provo against UCLA when the Bruins came in and upset the reigning champs 27-24, scoring 11 points in the game's final quarter.
Think about that: the margin of error in this game was slight. One more bounce BYU's way, and the streak likely continues for several more weeks. This UCLA team was good -- they finished 9-2-1 and were ranked No. 7 in the country at the end (No. 6 by Sports-Reference.com's computer rankings). The streak could have gone to 30 games, maybe even more. And had the Cougars beat UTEP and UCLA, it could have been another shot at title, as national champion Oklahoma finished with one loss.
But the UCLA loss isn't the most harrowing, it was UTEP. Lowly, 1-10 UTEP, who were outscored by their opponents 376-196 in 1985. Robbie Bosco was intercepted 4 times, and the defense couldn't overcome all the Cougar turnovers.
Despite a poor performance in that game, Bosco had a very good season. He three for 4200 yards while completing 66% of his passes. His 24 interceptions are the second most thrown by a BYU QB, only behind Ty Detmer's 28 picks in his 1990, Heisman-winning season.
The defense was, at least statistically, better than the national championship squad, allowing less than 13 points a game. DL Jason Buck won the WAC Defensive Player of the Year with 11.5 sacks. He would go on to win the Outland Trophy in 1986 and play in the NFL. Senior LB Leon White, who was First Team All-WAC, added 49 tackles (8 for loss), 3 sacks and 2 INTs.
Like every season except 1984, this season is filled with what-ifs. But besides the UTEP loss, this season played out how you would expect. Tough losses against two really good teams (UCLA and Ohio State) were matched with good wins against Air Force (finished 12-1 and ranked No. 8), Washington and Utah.
Of course it wasn't 1984, but it wasn't a terrible encore either.