With the passing away of the previous BCS system and the induction of the Playoffs, we will be revisiting one of the seasons that helped usher in the Bowl Championship Series, the 1996 BYU Cougars. Due to NCAA rules that are no longer in place, the Cougars were the first team to play 15 games in a season. By rule the Cougars were able to play a kickoff game (Pigskin Classic) that was not counted towards their regular season, they were granted an additional regular season game because they played in Hawaii, and when you add in the WAC Championship game and the bowl game, you end up with an unprecedented 15 games.
After starting the season unranked in the Coaches' Poll, and beating three ranked teams over the course of the season, the Cougars managed to find their way to #5 ranking and a 14-1 record. We can only speculate what would have happened if they hadn't encountered their one hiccup as they dropped from #14 to outside the top 25 in week 4 of the college football season. Regardless of the result, it scared college football and may have convinced those in charge to pull the trigger a bit more quickly than anticipated and the BCS was born in order to keep the power with the large conferences.
As one of the best years in Cougar history, let's take a look at how it happened by reliving the path for the Cotton Bowl Champions!
In the first of a three part series, we will take a look at weeks 1-5 of the 1996 season.
Week 1 - 1996 Pigskin Classic: BYU vs 13/12 Texas A&M
In the opening game of the 1996 college football season on national television, Steve Sarkisian and the BYU Cougars hosted the Aggies of Texas A&M. The BYU defense started things off as they held the Aggies to a three and out on their opening drive. On the Cougars first drive, they converted a third and one that set up a 48-yard pass to Itula Mili that positioned the Cougars at the Aggies 5 yard line. On the very next play, Sarkisian found Chad Lewis at the goal line as he dove and made the catch for the first points of the game. They lost some of the momentum of the play as the extra point was blocked, leaving the Cougars up 6-0 with 11:32 left in the first quarter. The Aggies would answer back with a missed field goal, however a delay of game penalty before the play gave them a second chance and they converted on the 45-yard kick to make the score 6-3 halfway through the quarter. The Aggies would again put points on the board near the end of the quarter as Sirr Parker would scramble 19 yards into the end zone and a 10-6 lead.
The Aggies would continue to pour it on in the second quarter as they converted on a 43-yard field goal and a 57-yard touchdown from Branndon Stewart by Aaron Oliver that would give the Aggies a 14 point lead at 20-6 with just under 10 minutes before the half. BYU would soon cut into the deficit as Mili hauled in a deflected pass in the end zone and making the score 20-14. With 45 seconds in the half, The Cougars would tie up the game as Kaipo McGuire would haul in a 10 yard pass in the back of the end zone.
Texas A&M would start the scoring in the second half as Eric Bernard took a third down sweep for 40 yards for a touchdown and a 27-20 lead just four minutes into the half. BYU would answer right back as McGuire would record his second touchdown of the game on a 51 yard catch with 9:14 left in the quarter. The Cougars would miss their second extra point of the game and trailed 27-26. Just before the end of the quarter the Aggies put another touchdown on the board as D'andre Hardeman caught a six yard pass from Stewart to put the Aggies up 34-26 after three.
BYU started off the scoring in the fourth quarter as James Dye caught a 12-yard touchdown pass from Sarkisian that was set up by an incredible 33 yard acrobatic catch by Ben Cahoon. The Cougars would convert the two-point conversion to tie up the game. The two teams would duke it out for the rest of the quarter, but the Aggies appeared to have taken an advantage on a 30-yard touchdown pass, but they were called for a penalty and had to settle for a 52-yard field goal with 1:31 left in the game and a three point lead. Sarkisian and company would answer back in 24 seconds as K.O. Kealaluhi would take a perfectly thrown ball into the end zone for the winning touchdown. With a 41-37 win, the Cougars had announced themselves to the country.
Week 2: BYU vs Arkansas State
After an emotional high and strong victory on national television, the Cougars stayed home to play week two against Arkansas State. After starting the year unranked, the Cougars had jumped up to #19. After the previous week's performance, fans expected a blow out in week 2. BYU started early and continued to score as Kaipo McGuire scored the first points of the day as he hauled in a 13-yard pass from Sarkisian, followed by a Mark Atuaia 6-yard touchdown catch.
Arkansas State didn't score until the end of the second quarter and only after Ethan Pochman kicked a 28-yard field goal and Chad Lewis hauled in a 7-yard touchdown. With the 41-yard field goal for Jeff Caldwell, the Cougars held a 24-3 halftime lead. BYU continued to put up the points in the third quarter as Kealuluhi pulled in a 69-yard pass and Pochman added a 33-yard field goal before Lamont Zachery scored for Arkansas State on a 47-yard touchdown pass from Jeremie Watkins. With a missed extra point and an Atuaia 4-yard touchdown run, the Cougars led 41-9 at the end of three.
BYU finished out the scoring in the fourth as Pochman added a 30 yard field goal, Paul Shoemaker added a one yard touchdown run andadded a 12 yard touchdown run. Overall the Cougars had over 550 yards in offense in the 58-9 win.
Week 3: BYU at Washington
The Cougars had a bye week before traveling to Seattle to take on the Washington Huskies. The Cougars had climbed to 14th in the rankings and may have gone into the game a bit overconfident. Washington jumped on BYU early holding the Cougars scoreless in the first quarter and scoring on a Rashaan Shehee 4-yard run and a Shehee 45-yard run to lead 14-0 after one. BYU continued to utilize the Sarkisian to McGuire connection as they connected on a 32-yard pass in the second quarter, pulling within seven, before Shane Fortney scored on a one yard rush to put the Huskies back up by 14 at the break.
Coming into the second half down 21-7 the Cougars knew they would have their chances, but could only put up a 42-yard Pochman field goal in the third quarter, while the Huskies added a 29-yard pass from Shane Fortney to Dave Janoski to increase the lead 27-10 going into the fourth. The fourth quarter wouldn't fare much better for the Cougars as Mili caught a 1-yard touchdown pass to pull the score to 27-17 before a safety gave the Huskies their final points of the game and a 29-17 win. With eight sacks and eight false start penalties the Cougars dream of an undefeated season had ended and WAC play was coming up.
Week 4: BYU vs New Mexico
Coming off the stinging loss to the Huskies and falling out of the top 25, the Cougars came out sluggish in the WAC opener against the New Mexico Lobos. Turnovers and penalties haunted the Cougars throughout the game and they only managed three points in the first quarter. The Lobos took the lead early in the second quarter when Lennox Gordan ran 4-yard touchdown for the Lobos first points of the game and led 7-3. BYU would respond before halftime with a Sarkisian to McGuire 23-yard touchdown pass and walked into the locker room up 10-3.
New Mexico would take back the lead when Blake Irwin returned a Cougar fumble 18 yards for the defensive touchdown, giving the Lobos their final score and lead of the game. Ronney Jenkins would score the final points of the game in the third quarter as well when he scored on a 6-yard run that put the Cougars up for good and provided the final score of 17-14. With no points in the fourth quarter and the team playing sluggish, the Cougars were happy to walk out with the win, but hadn't played to their best abilities.
Week 5: BYU vs SMU
Back in the top 25 and looking to get back on track, the 24th-ranked Cougars welcomed SMU to town. SMU scored the first points of the game as Daniel Hernandez connected on a 38 yard field goal to put SMU up 3-0, but from that point on it was all BYU. The Cougars put up 170 yards rushing and 375 yards passing for the game and by halftime the game was over.
BYU started with a 34-yard field goal by Pochman and a 17-yard rushing touchdown from Brian McKenzie in the first quarter. Jenkins followed these up with rushing touchdowns of one and 21 yards in the second quarter. Kealaluhi added a 56-yard touchdown catch. The Cougars called off the dogs in the second half as they led 31-3 at the break, and neither team scored again. The second half was marred by turnovers as the Cougars lost three fumbles, but the dominate victory put the Cougars back on track.
With a 4-1 record through five games, the Cougars would move up to #21 in the rankings before the meat of the WAC schedule took place.
In the next installment we will look at weeks 6-10 which included Utah State, UNLV, Tulsa, TCU, and UTEP.