2020 has been a wild, stressful, abnormal year for every single one of us. If you would’ve told a BYU fan after their gut-wrenching loss to Hawaii in the Hawaii Bowl on Christmas Eve last season that they would enter next December undefeated with a chance at a New Year’s Six bowl, they would’ve laughed you out of the room.
That was before the schedule got blown to bits by conferences cancelling non-conference games and re-shuffling their conferences to soften the blow of COVID-19 and the effects it has had on the sport.
Credit to BYU Athletic Director Tom Holmoe for patchworking a schedule together so the Cougars could play 10 games to this point and another one coming this weekend against San Diego State. Not many programs, if any, have jumped through as many hoops as the Cougars have to play in 2020.
Despite the schedule rearrangement, COVID cancelling games left and right, strict protocols and some conferences or leagues just folding until spring, BYU stayed the course and took what it could get in order to play this fall.
Then they just kept on winning. From the opening kickoff against Navy, it was clear this was a different team. The utter dominance of the Cougars was shocking, especially to long time fans who haven’t seen BYU this dominant since the Max Hall days at least. The wins just kept coming and BYU kept climbing. This was the ultimate example of taking advantage of a unique situation. BYU once again had a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate in Zach Wilson and some pundits were arguing that the Cougars should get a shot in the final four of the College Football Playoff.
Sitting at 9-0, BYU was squarely in the race for a New Year’s Six bowl. BYU has never made a Bowl Alliance/BCS/New Year’s Six bowl in their entire program history. This was the year. BYU has checked virtually every box off of the program resume, a national title, undefeated season and Heisman winner, with the only box left unchecked was a premier, top bowl game appearance, much less a win.
The Holiday Bowls of yore do not count, as sure they were fun, but it was the BYU Cougars themselves that made that bowl relevant, not a committee or college football alliance. The Cotton Bowl of 1996 was maybe the closest, BYU’s only January bowl game, but it was not part of what was then the “Bowl Alliance,” which featured the Sugar, Orange and Fiesta Bowls.
While BYU has won some bowl games to achieve big things, like a national championship in 1984, or a 14-1 season capped by beating a Big 12 team on New Year’s Day in 1996, they have yet to break through and get the big-time bowl nod like their rivals to the north in Salt Lake and Boise have. It’s a gaping hole on the resume.
Whether it was due to bias towards BYU as a program, their lackluster schedule that was outside of their control, or wanting to hoard money for Power 5 conferences, the College Football Playoff committee made it very clear that BYU wasn’t going anywhere without adding a quality game. And they did.
BYU had everything right in front of them. They had the eyeballs, the College Gameday experience, the respect, and the chance to silence any remaining doubters. If they beat undefeated, No. 18 Coastal Carolina, they are in prime position for (likely) the Fiesta Bowl. Of course, they still needed to beat San Diego State but let’s be honest, if BYU takes care of business on the road in South Carolina, they very likely beat SDSU in Provo on a chilly December night at elevation to achieve 11-0.
BYU has had just one undefeated season in program history, when they won the title in 1984. The Cougars had a chance to springboard themselves into their second season without a loss had they beaten the Chanticleers.
BYU should have won that game. They had plenty of opportunities. Poor clock and timeout management, questionable coaching decisions in key moments, turnovers, dropped passes, missed blocks, missed tackles, missed assignments, an inexcusable three measly points in the second half, all led to BYU losing to a team they should have beaten. They were a 10.5-point favorite, had the better recruits, the more experienced and talented quarterback, more NFL prospects, bigger, stronger linemen, and fell one yard short of glory. They cost themselves millions of dollars as a program going from (likely) the Fiesta Bowl to a mid-to-low-tier, non-New Year’s bowl. And yes, BYU needs the money just like everyone else during this pandemic, as they have recently laid off several employees.
They may never have this opportunity again, at least until they align themselves with a power conference in the future.
I say this because of the way BYU normally schedules when the world is not riddled with a pandemic. The scheduling strategy is not conducive to being 9-0 in December. When you play several Power 5 teams in a row to start the season (which is something not even Power 5 teams even do), you set yourself up to fail. Even if you win those games, the attrition, the injuries, the fatigue sets in quickly and BYU lacks the juice to play at a high level against beatable teams (NIU, Toledo, USF, to name a few).
Thanks to the scheduling changes due to COVID, BYU had a much more favorable schedule. BYU is not 9-0 facing the schedule they originally had.
Most assume that the pandemic will not ravage the 2021 or future schedules, suggesting they will continue scheduling several Power 5 teams in a row for years to come. It’s not necessarily because BYU keeps scheduling Power 5 teams as BYU can hang or beat a good number of them, rather it’s when they are schedule and how many. Otherwise, more 8-5 seasons ending in the Idaho Potato Bowl are in the future.
Until the scheduling strategy changes, BYU aligns themselves with a Power 5 conference, or the College Football Playoff Committee changes how they look at teams outside of the Power 5 conferences (laughing out loud), BYU may never be in a position to play in a New Year’s Six bowl ever again. Saturday night was their chance to get there and the coaches and players squandered it.