With two seasons remaining, I take us back to the absolute pinnacle of BYU's football success. Between 1979-85, BYU would put together the best run in school history. Over those six seasons, the Cougars lost only 13 games, and 8 of those losses came in 1982 and 1985. BYU was a top 16 team in 5 of the 6 seasons.
I understand why you might feel that 1996 deserves this spot (and you can hear Matt and I discuss it on last week's podcast). But as great as 1996 was, 1980 was a better season. Disagree? Let's hear it in the comments below. Read on and enjoy a ride in the time machine to the era of tear-off jerseys and well-paid collegiate athletes.
Coach: LaVell Edwards
Ranking: 12th in the AP poll, 11th in the coaches poll
Bowl: 46-45 win over SMU in the Holiday Bowl (aka, the Miracle Bowl)
Point Differential per game: 27.92
Opp. Winning %: .507
What you didn't know: After losing to New Mexico to start the season, the average score of the next 11 games (all wins) was 49-18.
I grew up with stories of Jim McMahon and the Miracle Bowl. My father remembered and recounted the game with vivid details, telling me the story of McMahon's heroics against the mighty Mustangs of SMU. In an incredible 2 minutes and 33 seconds, the Cougars scored 21 points to win the game, including the hail mary TD pass as time expired between McMahon and frequent target Clay Brown.
The icing on the cake of this incredible season was the first bowl victory in BYU history. The Cougars defeated the No. 19-ranked Mustangs in what is considered one of the best bowl games of all time, and can be seen almost annually on ESPN Classic when bowl season rolls around.
SMU was the best bowl opponent BYU had likely ever faced. SMU's three losses coming into the game were against two quality opponents (at Baylor who finished at No. 14 and home against Houston who was No. 27 according to Sports-Reference.com) and one mediocre opponent (Texas Tech). The Mustangs also stunned then No. 2 Texas 20-6 in October.
Besides the dramatic bowl. the national attention this team received was also a factor in this season's greatness. Though they started the season unranked, the Cougars finished ranked 12th in the AP poll, after finishing at No. 13 the season before. Between 1979 and 1981, BYU was an incredible 34-4. Though 1984 may have been the pinnacle of BYU football, the unbelievable run from 79-81 put the program on a path making the title season possible.
The play of McMahon and the offense was remarkable and, to that point in college football, quite unique. The Cougars led the nation in total offense, scoring and passing offense. McMahon himself put together one of the best QB seasons in college football history: 4571 yards, 47 TDs, 18 INTs, 64% completions, and more than 11 yards per completion. His QB rating of 176.9 still ranks No. 1 in school history, ahead of Ty Detmer's 1990 season. I believe this is the best any QB ever played in BYU history, the cream of an incredible crop of QB seasons. And some how he finished 5th in Heisman voting, second among QBs.
The offense was not solely McMahon. Brown was a First Team All-WAC performer at TE (and was also the First Team All-WAC punter). He caught 48 passes for 1,009 yards, good for 21 yards per catch. His 15 receiving TDs more than doubled the next closet on his team, and ties Austin Collie (2008) for most receiving TDs in a season in school history. He was a WR/TE hybrid 10 years before that would become common in passing offenses in college and the NFL.
The warts on this season are obvious. The loss to a pretty lousy New Mexico team is damning, even if it was on the road. And the defense was not elite, 55th in the country in 1980. That is partially due to teams scoring late against second stringers, but this team gave up 25 points to the Lobos and 46 points to Utah State, hardly elite offenses. And overall the schedule was pretty weak, with out of conference foes like Long Beach State and North Texas State. They did destroy a Wisconsin team in Madison, but the Badgers were 4-7 and not very good.
And all that would be enough to keep this team out of my top 5 if not for the way BYU dominated the entire schedule besides the loss to the Lobos and the dramatic victory against SMU. The Cougars scored more than 50 points five times, and 70 or more points twice. Yes, the 83-7 victory over 1-11 UTEP isn't that impressive, but the Cougars dominated almost everyone they played that season. A great example is the 34-7 victory over a decent Hawaii team (8-4) on the road. Few BYU teams have rolled over Hawaii like that on the islands, especially in a season in which Hawaii had a good team.
This was the most dominant team in BYU football history, even if I didn't rank it as the best of the last 40 years.