I saw a rant on a BYU-related blog today that I thought brought up an interesting question. Brett Richins asks Has BYU Hit Its Ceiling? He then vents for a while about BYU football's recent failings.
The easy and obvious answer to Brett's question is, no, of course BYU has not hit its ceiling under the leadership of Bronco Mendenhall. BYU has room to improve and Bronco has the potential to lead the team to that improvement.
But I do think that BYU has hit a cruising altitude as a program. By that, I mean I think the current baseline for BYU is to average 9+ wins per year and to have an average season ending ranking in the bottom half of the top 25. Again, those are averages. That means in down years BYU will be worse than that and in up years BYU will be better.
Here are some reasons why I think this is BYU's cruising altitude:
Recruiting at BYU
BYU has this little thing called The Honor Code. Perhaps you've heard of it. Well it turns out that this honor code is somewhat of a turnoff to lots of 18 year old young men. Not sure why, but I think it has something to do with them wanting to have pre-marital sex in college, along with wanting to do other things frowned upon at BYU. While there is a small slice of the annual recruiting pool who are not bothered by the BYU honor code, it is still a small segment and that severely limits the number of recruits who BYU can legitimately attract.
The flip side of that coin is the fact that there are a lot of Mormons in the world and only 85 scholarships to hand out. We believe Mormons are not only not put off by the BYU Honor Code, they are attracted to it. So BYU has a great recruiting advantage among believing Mormon athletes.
BYU does a nice job of attracting many highly-talented Mormon recruits and a handful of talented non-Mormon recruits every year. The end result is that BYU attracts solid talent on a pretty consistent basis, but almost never is ranked in the top 15 recruiting classes.
Coaching at BYU
The head coach at BYU is the most high profile position on campus. At BYU the job is to win, but only in a way that doesn't embarrass the university or its sponsoring church. Gary Crowton was canned for player scandals more than for his woeful record. Bronco saw the mistakes Crowton made and has not come close to repeating them when it comes to player conduct or the losing records.
As a result, Bronco is not on the hot seat at all. In fact Bronco's seat is so far from hot is has icicles hanging from it. BYU loves Bronco. Calling for or even hinting at his removal is a waste of time.
What about Bronco in "Big Games"?
I sometimes see fans claim "Bronco can't win big games". I think this is a silly thing to say. Considering that on average BYU has been around the 25th-30th best team in the country over the last seven years, BYU's record is about what you would expect. BYU has trouble upsetting highly ranked teams, but BYU does not suffer major upsets all that often. Yes, there are exceptions to both, but neither happen consistently.
Hoping for positive outlier years
So my assumption is that because of the recruiting limitations of BYU, it is reasonable to hope BYU can at least remain, on average, between the 20th and 30th best football team in the country. But there are always outlier years. On the down side, there will be the occasional 7-8 win regular season. But on the upside, there can and surely will be the occasional 11 or even 12 win regular season, too.
Claiming that Bronco can't lead the team to those 11-12 win regular seasons is nonsense. He hasn't yet, but he certainly could. If Bronco had revealed himself to be rigid and set in his ways and unwilling to try new things, I might worry about his upside potential. But Bronco has proven to be the opposite of rigid. He is constantly making changes, big and small, to the program in his efforts to consistently get more out of his players. And while fans tend to get hysterical after one painful loss, the fact is that BYU is on the right track under Bronco.
Adjusting cruising altitude?
BYU has plenty of room for improvement. After a deeply disappointing loss to Utah on Saturday, it is natural for fans to start calling for drastic changes. But BYU is not drastically off course. A great 2012 season is still very much a possibility. And if BYU falls short of expectations, it will be Bronco's responsibility to make whatever hard choices need to be made to fix the problems. But the more Bronco makes hard-but-helpful choices to improve the program, the higher the odds of having great outlier years.
And if BYU has enough positive outlier years in a row, they will move the average, and the good years won't seem like outliers any more. So while BYU has hit a nice cruising altitude, slowly improving that cruising altitude over time is not out of the question.
So no, BYU has not hit a ceiling. In fact, there is no ceiling.