— Long before the incarnation of the term BCS Buster, there was BYU. Located in Provo, Utah, at the base of the Wasatch Mountains, situated at the crossroads of gridiron greatness and the Eisenhower era, is the paragon of at-large programs: Brigham Young University.
As the 2008 college football season passes its midpoint, five schools that reside in the non-Bowl Championship Series (BCS) remain undefeated. Your potential 2008 BCS-busters are:
• Tulsa (6-0), which remains relevant as long as the Golden Hurricane continue to lead the nation in scoring.
• Ball State (7-0), which can count on alumnus David Letterman to maintain their profile, as long as the King of Late Night does not become too preoccupied with excoriating John McCain.
• Boise State (5-0), which will be fondly and favorably considered for as long as memories of the 2007 Fiesta Bowl remain, which is to say, the rest of our lives.
• Utah (7-0), whose advocates will remind you that the Utes were the first at-large team to play in (as well as win) a BCS bowl. Utah took down Pittsburgh in the 2005 Fiesta Bowl.
The four of them owe royalties, at least figuratively, to BYU. The Cougars, 6-0 and ranked No. 9 in the AP poll heading into Thursday night’s showdown at TCU, were here first. Since the end of World War II, only one school not currently in a BCS conference has won a national championship: BYU. The Cougars finished 13-0 in 1984, culminating in a 24-17 defeat of Michigan in the Holiday Bowl.
A little background on that: as the lone undefeated team that season, BYU finished atop both the AP and coaches’ polls after the bowls. It is worth noting that No. 2 Washington, whose only loss was to USC, declined an invitation to play the Cougars in the Holiday Bowl. U-Dub chose to play in the more prestigious (and lucrative) Orange Bowl, defeating Oklahoma but denying themselves a shot at the national title. This year’s Locker-gate debacle — the Huskies' QB was flagged for a celebration penalty against in the closing seconds that helped BYU block the game-tying PAT attempt — is only the latest chapter in these schools’ shared history.
BYU has long been an inimitable character among the cast of major-college programs. Peruse the 110-player BYU roster online and you will unearth the following data: 38 Cougar players are Eagle scouts (BYU’s entire scout team could consist of former Boy Scouts), 31 are married. Thirteen happen to be both, among them junior quarterback Max Hall. An additional six Cougar players graduated high school with 4.0 GPAs.
Wide receiver Austin Collie is one of two Cougars who score the hat trick: a married Eagle scout with a 4.0 high school grade-point average. That Collie is also second in the nation in receiving yards per game (112.17) is also exemplary, of course.
Perhaps Notre Dame comes closest to imitating BYU, and vice-versa. Consider, for instance, the inextricable link between Notre Dame football and Catholicism (Touchdown Jesus, anyone?) and how the Fighting Irish have promulgated those ties to advance their lore. Traditionally, Americans in major metropolitan areas are raised either knowing Catholics or being Catholic, and thus the intermingling of religious and gridiron terms (“Holtz resurrects Irish!”) is done with a wink and a smile.
Mormonism, more formally known as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, is a younger religion whose tenets are lesser-known to the masses.
At BYU, though, the priority of faith is no less interwoven to the fabric of daily life — a solid argument can be made that it is even more so. And, in the past quarter century, BYU has produced as many national championship seasons (1) and Heisman Trophy winners (1) as the Fighting Irish.
And while it is a matter of faith how much Notre Dame’s gridiron fortunes benefit by the team attending pre-game mass on Saturday’s, BYU definitely is well-served by its commitment to religion. The majority of Cougar players suspend their academic and gridiron careers for two years after their freshmen years in order to go on religious missions all over the globe. The junior and senior classes are normally between the ages of 22 and 24, more physically and emotionally mature.
All of which will remain just trivial footnotes to the 2008 season if BYU loses at TCU. The Cougars are the only BCS Buster ranked in the Top 10 on reputation as much as anything. Yes, they have that winning streak — the nation's longest at 16 — and the No. 2 scoring defense (behind only USC) at 10.2 points per game allowed. To date, though, they have only played two BCS schools: woeful Washington, whom they barely escaped, and rudderless UCLA, whom they so thoroughly ravaged that afterward the “B” in the school’s nickname was silent.
If BYU played in the SEC or Big 12 … that is the argument. Would the Cougars realistically be even the second-best team in the SEC, which earlier this season had five schools ranked in the Top 10? How would they fare in the Big 12, where six programs are currently ranked in the Top 15?
Thanks to the idiosyncrasies of college football, that is not BYU’s problem. The Cougars have almost perennially had a sophisticated passing offense dating back to the mid-70’s days of Gifford Nielsen (who begat Marc Wilson, who begat Jim McMahon, who begat Steve Young, who begat Robbie Bosco, who begat Ty Detmer …). This year is no different, as Hall, the reigning Mountain West Conference offensive player of the year, is averaging just less than 308 yards passing per game.
Hall’s favorite targets are Collie and tight end Dennis Pitta, although the latter owns a distinct advantage. Last year Hall and his wife, McKinzi, hosted a party at their home to watch the season premiere of “The Office.” The only two single or unengaged guests were Pitta and McKinzi’s sister, Mataya. One year later, Pitta and McKinzi are closer than Dunder and Mifflin. The two got married over the summer.
Such is the movie-and-a-milkshake universe of BYU, whose only more formidable extracurricular program may be its a cappella groups (two different BYU ensembles have won national championships in the past three years). Where more than a few players hail from families of seven or more siblings (defensive lineman Tevita Hola is one of 16 children). Where players don’t just behave like Boy Scouts; they are Boy Scouts.
Should BYU get past TCU — not a given, as the Horned Frogs have already played Oklahoma and yet still lead the nation in total defense — everyone in the Beehive State will buzz with even more fervor about Nov. 22. That’s the day when the Cougars will travel 45 miles north to Salt Lake City to visit Utah. The Utes’ undefeated season also hinges upon a date with TCU (at home on Nov. 6).
How special would that be, two non-BCS unbeatens facing off in each other’s final game of the season? For the last three years, BYU has won the Mountain West Conference without going undefeated. Their reward has been a conference tie-in berth in the Las Vegas Bowl, which is somewhat of a cruel prank on its fan base. There’s only so much fun that a Mormon family can have in Sin City.
This year, however, a pilgrimage to a BCS bowl could be at stake. For the patriarch of BCS-busting programs, who would not want to witness that?