Here at VTF we like to conduct interviews with media types and fellow bloggers to glean insights regarding the upcoming opponent. While those people provide some great insights, sometimes it’s fun to hear from the fans.
This week we were unable to get connected with our fellow Tennessee fans so we took the opportunity to chat with an old friend Zach Bloxham, our favorite Layton resident and longtime BYU fan. Our conversation touched on some big picture aspects of the program and why things have changed for BYU over the last few years. It’s not all roses and sunshine but, as advertised, it’s an honest conversation.
Jake Welch, VTF Staff: Starting off the season with a loss is something that BYU fans aren’t exactly familiar with and it’s even more complex because of the Utah game. Usually we don’t get into the habit of getting questioning life until weeks 3 or 4. In the wake of the loss you tweeted out some very eloquent thoughts about your BYU fanhood and the state of the program that resonated with a lot of people. When was the last time your BYU football excitement was at its peak, and what has changed between now and then?
Zach Bloxham: Firstly, I would never claim to speak for any other BYU fan but myself. Fandom is a bizarre, often misshapen collection of emotional experiences, personal relationships, and expectations displayed to the world. And all on account of the sporting prowesses and proclivities of a bunch of college-age strangers playing a game with a ball. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t important. And losing games is never easy.
Your question is an interesting one because the answer depends on how you define ‘excitement over BYU Football’ – and whether that is specific to a particular game or the context surrounding the season it is played in. The specific high-water mark would be beating Texas in Austin during the 2014, where it felt BYU’s generational talent at quarterback and a dynamic offensive scheme were showing signs of stardom and glory. The contextual high-water, and my final answer, would be beating Mississippi State in Provo in October of 2016. It has been a tremendously fun season, despite losing more than a few heartbreakers up to that point. A double-overtime win against an SEC team in Provo was the crescendo of everything independence promised to be: named opponent, at home, on ESPN, the eyes of college football watching, and the future upon us. It all looked as if it would pay off as BYU’s dream of a Big 12 berth was mere days away from being confirmed, according to multiple media reports. Seventy-two hours later the expansion door slammed shut again – and this time it felt different and perpetual.
Since that day it has been difficult for me to separate BYU Football from the unfairness of conference expansion and the heavy injustice of a sport where half of the competitors literally –and I mean literally—do not have a chance to win a championship before the season starts. It’s made me question whether the investment in money, time, and emotion is worth it. And that is through no-fault of BYU. Sure, the Cougars should never be losing to UMass at home. But BYU has been good and sometimes great at football for the better part of four decades. Bad losses or seasons are not unique to Provo. And if this expansion was merit-based, the Cougars would have been invited to the big boy table long ago, with the assured right to play for a real-life championship.
So what’s changed between then and now is everything and nothing. Everything’s changed in that this is a new world of college football where the divide between the haves and have-nots ever expands, leaving non-P5 competition to feel more like exhibition than genuine sporting contest. And also nothing’s changed because, for all intents and purposes, BYU has the same chance at winning a championship today as it has in every year post-1984: it doesn’t. The Cartel won’t let it. It is the false lights of expansion – both in conference affiliation and playoff structure – that make it difficult to go back to how it used to be. And how I used to feel. And how I use to care.
JW: There is no question that the changing landscape of the game puts BYU in a less than desirable position. Knowing that this is the situation that we find ourselves in, could BYU carve out an identity similar to that of Iowa State or Purdue? Realistically neither of these two programs will ever reach the CFP because that would involve besting conference powers (Ohio State, Oklahoma, etc) along with other worthy conference foes. Could they run off a perfect season and find themselves in the top 4? Sure but we both know it’s a long shot. That said, both programs find themselves with some nice momentum thanks to seasons where they took down ranked opponents (Texas and Ohio State) and challenged everyone else on the schedule. They’ve now become that team that no top team in the conference wants to face.
Could BYU, and more specifically our fan base, be content with this mentality? Running the table and getting in to the playoff is unlikely but we’ll be damned if anyone on our schedule thinks they’re gonna get there. Instead of expecting everyone to recognize us, we force them to with play on the field. Of course this is all contingent on our football team playing much, much better.
ZB: If my first question reads like a faith crisis you might not be too far off! And yes, the only way to move forward, outside of excising fandom from your very soul or federal antitrust intervention into the playoff structure, is do the best with the situation you’ve been dealt. Independence, for me, remains the best foot forward for the No Man’s Land we find ourselves in. That said, there are far too many who act like calls to go the AAC are being made in the Year of Our Lord 2011. There’s been major change to the landscape in college football during the last eight years and I think there’s a reasonable argument to be made for BYU entering a conference. Even if I don’t think it’s the path the Cougs should take right now.
So, assuming an independence schedule for the foreseeable future, the “Can BYU be an Iowa State/Purdue-like team that rises up to beat the big boy on occasion” is pretty much what’s been going on in Provo since 2011 and before. I don’t feel like looking up the stats but I believe the Cougars are hovering right around the .500 range against Power 5 teams during the independence era. The wins over Wisconsin, Michigan State, Ole Miss, Georgia Tech, Mississippi State, Arizona, Nebraska, etc. on one side. The losses to Michigan, LSU, UCLA, Notre Dame, Washington, West Virginia, and Missouri on the other. The win percentage is just about where I’d expect BYU to be given its talent level. And while I disagree with you about there being any chance that BYU could do to the CFP even if it did go undefeated, there really isn’t an alternative path to take. You simply win all of your games, ala UCF, and then Skip Bayless fight your battles on ESPN and for all to see and nothing changes.
The fanbase question is a bit more complicated. There is no question that apathy for BYU has become more pervasive within the blue and white during the past few years. It’s not uniform, of course, but it is a reality. So perhaps the answer to the mentality question is “we shall see.” BYU fans are used to winning and doing so frequently as it is run-of-the-mill to beat up on the dregs of the WAC, MWC, and the latter part of the independent schedule. What’s changed over the last few years is the Cougs stopped beating any of their rivals and began losing at home to the Northern Illinois of the world. A road win over a ranked Wisconsin loses its muster if you are not scoring a touchdown against a MAC team. BYU needs to get back to beating the teams it should beat, becoming more competitive against Utah and Boise, and following it up with the occasional victory over a named opponent. Start there. Any and all talk undefeated seasons and playoff berths should come later because BYU has no business even discussing that with the current state of the program.
JW: Ultimately it’s the play on the field that matters most. Even if we were in the Mountain West or AAC the last few years we would still be losing to bad teams and that’s what’s most frustrating. There are a million things that we could point to that are the cause of the current state of the program but I think the biggest and most obvious one is coaching. Kalani Sitake was, and probably still is, the best realistic candidate to lead the program but I think we need to recognize that BYU didn’t hire him as a finished product. He might have been able to overcome his lack of experience if not for the fact that he hired an entire offensive staff that was, and this is putting it light, WILDLY unqualified. That probably has more to do with the athletic department as a whole but that disaster really set the program back. The difficult part to swallow is that BYU isn’t like other schools that can right the ship with a new coordinator and one good recruiting class. Certainly the team is in a significantly better place than they were in 2017 but we’re still suffering the effects of that major blunder. Do you feel like the current staff can build the program back up to where Bronco left it? Mind you people were getting sick of eight win seasons under his watch.
ZB: Criticizing Kalani Sitake is not easy but criticizing Kalani Sitake is right. At least at this moment. And I echo nearly everything you said above. BYU has not been able to put a consistent offensive product on the field for going on three years. Kalani had Taysom Hill and Jamaal Williams at his disposal in Year 1. That team put up a million yards, played exciting football, and lost four games by a combined eight points. I was hopeful. It was in vain.
There are a lot of offensive coaches in America who would love to work with Zach Wilson for the next three years. The question is whether Wilson’s development parallels Taysom Hill or Tanner Mangum. Kalani had both and the offensive output, for better or worse, mirrored the quarterback play. I’m still not sold on Jeff Grimes. Mostly because the play calling has no rhyme or reason and Mangum’s development suffered so noticeably. I long for the halcyon days of Dr. Robert Anae. Every miscreant who sullied his name with their forked tongue owes the rest of us in Cougarland an apology.
The fact is Mendenhall and Anae allowed BYU to over-achieve for the better part of a decade. Is the Kalani-era mediocrity the new normal and such condition cannot be fixed by way of coaching change? Or can the head man can find a way to turn around a ship that isn’t going anywhere but the rocky shore. I miss the days when the Blue Bloods complained that we were running plays too fast or too hard. I’m not ready to concede BYU can’t be good again. I’m also not sure that this coaching staff is the one to get us there.
JW: Much of this discussion has emphasized the general frustrations with the program and coaching staff so let’s see if we can end this on a positive note. Knowing that we still have a the whole of our season left to play, what player or positions get you excited to watch? Zach Wilson is an obvious choice and I feel, like coaches be damned, he’ll find a way to get better simply because that’s the only thing he wants in life. The offensive line already faced their toughest test and should have their way the second half of the season. Matt Bushman shows me flashes of Dennis Pitta and Dayan Ghanwoloku might be the best open-field tackler I’ve seen in a BYU uniform the last few years.
ZB: I was really impressed with Ty’son Williams in his unconscionably limited action against Utah. Both he and Lopini Katoa need to be a major part of the offense if BYU has a chance to win any of its next three games. The Cougars have not had a 1,000 yard rusher in the previous two seasons and didn’t rush for even 100 yards at home in Week 1. I think our top-two backs are good enough to get the job done as a unit, with the hopes that one of them will take to the starting role and make BYU a better, more well-rounded, and winning football team.