Last year I ranked 40 BYU seasons, culminating with 1984 as the best season since 1972. I outlined my criteria here and you can access all the rankings in the write-up of the 1984 season.
So where did 2012 sit in my slightly revised rankings? Mayber higher than you think. See the full write-up below.
Coach: Bronco Mendenhall
Bowl: 23-6 win over San Diego State in the Poinsettia Bowl
Point Differential per game: 14.69
Opp. Winning %: .543
What you didn't know: Maybe this isn't a shock, but BYU played a tough schedule in 2012. But how tough? According to opposition winning percentage, it was the 7th toughest schedule since LaVell Edwards took over the program. According to Sports-Reference.com, it's the 27th toughest schedule in BYU football history (which isn't nearly as impressive).
This is a "What if?" season if there ever was one. That's what happens when 4 of your 5 losses are by less than a touchdown. And when you were a missed block away from converting a potentially game-winning two-point conversation on the smurf turf. And when you were a missed pass to a wide-open Cody Hoffman away from possibly upsetting one of the best teams in the country and altering the BCS national championship game. And so on.
Let's start with the good. This defense was possibly the best defense in BYU history. Only three teams allowed fewer points per game than this group's number of 14.0 -- 1985, 1979 and 1978. All three of those teams played easier schedules than this year's team, and two of those teams played with offenses that were light-years better than the 2012 BYU offense. The only other defense since 1990 that has allowed fewer than 18 points a game was the 2006 team, also coached by Bronco Mendenhall.
This group put up some tremendous numbers. They allowed just over 3 yards per play. Opponents converted less than 27% of third downs. They were great against the run and the pass. About the only thing they weren't good at was generating turnovers (only 22, good for 58th in the country).
Individually, there were some awesome seasons. Senior linebacker Brandon Ogletree led the team with 101 tackles, 12.5 for loss. Soon-to-be high round draft pick Ezekiel Ansah emerged with 58 tackles and 4.5 sacks. And All-American Kyle Van Noy put in a season to remember, with 13 sacks, 22 tackles for loss (most ever in a season at BYU), two interceptions, and five forced fumbles. Van Noy's exclamation point was a two touchdown performance against San Diego State in the Poinsettia Bowl in a game where he seemingly beat the Aztecs by himself.
That's what's so frustrating about this season. With a defense this good, the Cougars should have been better than 8-5 and could have had one of the best teams in school history. But the offense and special teams kept that from happening.
The offense was not good. In the past 41 seasons, this season ranks No. 27 in PPG at 28.9, and that number is inflated by big numbers against really bad teams. BYU's 5.19 yards per play was 97th in the country. As a group, BYU's QBs completed just 59% of their attempts and averaged only 6.5 yards per attempt, which was good for 93rd in the country. This was one of the worst 10-15 BYU offenses since 1973, no matter which numbers you measure.
Field goal kicking was similarly terrible. Only 10-18 on field goals, and a long of 35, stats that better fit a write-up on a high school and not a college team. With as close as many of these losses were, a better kicking game could have been worth 2-3 wins this season. Riley Stephenson was really good as a punter though, and saved his best game for the bowl game.
For most BYU fans, 8-5 is a major disappointment, especially for a team that came into the season with a senior QB and a lot of promise. A couple of bounces one way or another, and this could have turned out very differently. This could have easily been an 11-2 type of season.
So because of those raw emotions, many of you may think that a ranking of 17th in the past 41 seasons is too high. But it's not. It slots in above a bunch of mediocre teams from the 1990s and 1970s (see the list linked to at the beginning of this story), behind the overrated 2001 team, some 1980s teams, and a couple of Bronco's better teams. It can't go any higher because 8 wins is just not enough. But it doesn't fit lower because the schedule was a tough one, and the defense was so unbelievably good that it makes the 2012 Cougars better than any of the teams behind them.
In the end, this is a ‘What if?' season. If Riley had been healthy, if the coaches had made better QB decisions, if a couple breaks had gone the way of the Cougars. But in the end it was a pretty disappointing season, though history will likely be kinder to it than fans were in the moment.