This is Part 1 of this column. For Part 2, click here. For Part 3, click here.
As a fan you probably find yourself asking quite a few questions. Why did something happen? What will happen next? That's the beauty of sports. Speculation. What fan doesn’t make predictions? What fan doesn’t analyze what they see? Because of this, it is a gift to find other sports fans when attending a social event. This is especially the case when a fellow BYU fan is around.
It is amazing how quickly a total stranger becomes someone you can debate and bond with. Based on these interactions, I personally would speculate that about 70% of the BYU fans seem dissatisfied with the product the BYU football team has put out. Specifically citing the past 3 seasons, which coincide with the Cougars' journey into conference independence.
The problem isn’t independence. The problem is fan attitude adjustment to independence and BYU's losing key games. Let's evaluate some reasonable expectations for the program and how they have changed in this new world as an independent.
In the past it was easier:
- Make a bowl game
- Compete for a conference championship
- Be in the top 25
- Beat Utah
Now, it is tougher. Especially in seasons without a game against Utah:
- Be in the top 25
- Win Bowl Game
Obviously, not being in a conference makes it tougher as a fan. In the past, even if BYU started 1-2 (they often do), there was a chance to at least say that they were better than a certain number of teams within the region, who played the same teams. Bragging rights. That was fun. That isn’t possible anymore.
Another challenge found in our new fan environment is that simply making a bowl game isn’t impressive or meaningful anymore. It isn’t an achievement.
I remember in junior high, there was a contest in the school to see who could write the best original song. There were prizes, and I was bored in study hall. Thus came the song "Praying Mantis." (I was BIG into Space Ghost Coast to Coast back then.) Amazingly, I took 3rd place in the school. How many entries were there? Three. I never told my parents about my "accomplishment."
Delighting in qualifying for a bowl game berth for BYU would be like being blown away that you got a toy in your happy meal.
Tom Holmoe will schedule 6 wins every year. It makes all the sense in the world to do so. He will secure a bowl game with scheduling. These scheduled win games are games where if BYU lost it would be a shock (2013 loss at Virginia) or one of the best seasons in that school's history (2012 loss at San Jose State).
Scheduled wins this year are:
@ Middle Tennessee
I know I just listed 7 games, but if BYU loses any of those games it would truly be a disappointment. (If the Y can’t beat a Cal team that went 1-11 last year or allow themselves to lose to that 2-10 Virginia team again at home, then maybe it's time for Marc Bronco Clay Mendenhall to stop talking about national championships.)
So every season half of the games will be seen as surefire victories. What happens in these games is meaningless to BYU fans, unless one of the scheduled wins become a loss. You can chalk up a bowl game appearance going forward.
That’s why simply making a bowl game just won’t do anymore for Cougar fans. With the lack of games with stakes attached to them, at least a bowl game has a trophy to earn; BYU has to win bowl games these days.
Assuming Tom Holmoe will pursue a balanced schedule, and he has so far, means that the other 6 games in the season will be 50-50 games (Boise State) or tougher opponents (Wisconsin).
Those games this season are:
@ Boise State
What happens in these games will determine the overall happiness of BYU fans. The implication for Bronco Mendenhall and Tom Holmoe is that for fans the program is judged on 6 games yearly. In 2014, it will only be 5.
This is why an 8-4 regular season is still a disappointment for fans. 8-4 means, in theory, that the Cougars went 2-4 in games that matter to the fans. It bothers some, especially those at the head of the program, that 8 wins are scoffed at and not viewed as a big achievement. But take a look.
Since LaVell (1972), 42 seasons
14 win seasons = 1
13 win seasons = 1
12 win seasons = 2
11 win seasons = 7
10 win seasons = 5
9 win seasons = 6
8 win seasons = 7
7 win seasons = 4
6 win seasons = 5
5 win seasons = 3
4 win seasons = 1
Average W/L record: 8.7-3.8
8 wins IS slightly below average for BYU’s program! 22 seasons have finished with 9+ wins. 13 seasons have finished with 7 or less wins. 7 seasons have finished with 8 wins exactly. And as I mentioned before, 8 wins represents a 2-4 record against 50-50 and tougher opponents.
Might I suggest that 9 wins is the magic amount that appeases the fans? 8 wins feels disappointing overall to fans, and 7 wins (or less) means there will be grumblings about job security.
Perhaps the biggest contributing factor to dissatisfied fans is the 4 game losing streak to the U. Of course, the losing hurts, but even further it has been the way they have lost. Without bringing out too many demons, just know that in the past 3 years, Utah has had 4th quarter leads of 40, 17, and 14. It has been 10 quarters since the Cougars have even held a lead over the Utes. Last time BYU had a lead going into the 4th quarter was in 2010, where they promptly allowed 17 points in the final quarter to blow their 13 point lead. Or perhaps they needed 3 opportunities to make an OT forcing field goal in 2012. Or maybe they shouldn’t have targeted Eric Thornton twice in the two most critical moments of the 2013 game.
Uh-oh. I’m going to that dark place.
As you well know, BYU isn’t playing Utah over the next couple of years. Currently, they only have 3 future dates set in 2016, 2017, and 2018 with the Utes. So, there isn’t that way to ingratiate the BYU football program to disgruntled fans, at least in the short term. But maybe the absence of the Holy War game and its recent tendency to induce depression will do more to curry favor then playing the game would anyway.
Top 25 finishes do come more infrequently. In the past 42 seasons, BYU has been ranked at the season's end 17 times. The Cougars are currently on a 4-year drought. The longest stretch without a top 25 finish in the past 42 years was LaVell’s first 5 years. (LaVell was fighting off some major history as the program had never been ranked before 1977. Plus, there was only a top 20 ranking until 1989 when it expanded to 25.) Should the 2014 Cougars fail to finish in the top 25, it would mark the longest streak without a national ranking since the BYU football program entered the national picture.
From an analytical standpoint, the fans have a point. BYU’s record since becoming an independent against scheduled wins is 16-2. Their record against 50-50 and tougher opponents is 8-10. In bowl games, they are 2-1. They have been dominated by the Utes for 3 years. They have started slow with 2 losses after the first 4 games in each of the last 3 seasons. Finally, BYU Football is on the verge of the longest drought of post-season ranking since 1977.
But that’s just a look at fan disappointment from an analytical perspective. There is more to this. Fans are struggling with BYU football from an aesthetic and emotional standpoint as well.
Sometimes BYU fans are criticized for being unrealistic. But the last three seasons? The football program has fallen short of the norm and most fans seem unhappy. Maybe it is a problem of fan recalibration to adjust to life as an independent. But from what history offers fans, the 70% dissatisfaction rate may be justified.