BYU's upset win over Oklahoma vindicating for Thompson, Hatch
BYU's victory fueled the argument non-BCS teams belong in national-title picture
The Cougars still face a tough schedule, including Florida State, TCU and Utah
But if they manage to win out, we could be looking at the ultimate BCS-buster
Like everyone else who's experienced it, the senior senator from Utah couldn't help but marvel at the huge video board hanging from the Cowboys Stadium roof. He could see blades of artificial grass and beads of sweat rolling down players' faces.
"Really, really unbelievable," he said. "Amazing."
Even less believable was the final score glowing on that board last Saturday: BYU 14, Oklahoma 13. And as long as we're talking picture clarity, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) had one more thought:
"If this doesn't make my case against the BCS, I don't know what does."
BYU's victory sent shockwaves across college football both because of Sam Bradford's separated right shoulder -- "I feel really badly," Hatch said -- and because of how it rearranged the national championship picture.
BYU is in. The picture, that is.
Bronco Mendenhall does not want to go there, and who can blame him? After beating Oklahoma, the BYU coach's biggest task was convincing the Cougars that Tulane poses a threat on Saturday. But if BYU goes unbeaten against a schedule that also includes Florida State and ranked Mountain West Conference rivals TCU and Utah, we might be looking at the ultimate BCS-buster.
Twenty-five years after winning a national championship, it's not outside the realm of possibility that BYU could play for another one. Or, at least, for what Hatch calls the "so-called, quote, national championship, unquote." He's giddy, along with every BYU fan -- a couple thousand greeted the Cougars at the airport when they returned home, and word is students shut down intersections with, uh, wild celebrations last Saturday night.
"Very few thought BYU could win that game," Hatch said, "but they were outplaying Oklahoma (before Bradford's injury)."
But the victory resonates far beyond Provo, Utah. Add Colorado State's win over Colorado, and the Mountain West's opening weekend sure didn't hurt the noisy arguments coaches, a commissioner and Congress made this offseason. Perhaps, in light of Week 1, Craig Thompson would like to resubmit that playoff proposal?
"It was a good opening weekend," the Mountain West commissioner said, laughing. "It was a very important statement."
Let's be honest: BYU's chances of reaching the BCS Championship Game aren't great. Before we begin talking about the BCS rankings formula, and how voters and computers would treat the Cougars when it counted, there's the little matter of winning 12 more games against a difficult schedule.
But for the first time, it's not an impossible dream. BYU leaped 11 spots in the Associated Press poll this week, up to No. 9 from No. 20, which happens to be the same jump Alabama made after beating Clemson in the 2008 opener. The Tide made it all the way to No. 1 before losing to Florida in the SEC Championship Game. And then -- you might remember this; the non-BCS leagues sure do -- Utah knocked 'Bama from its pedestal.
"All we would like is to be treated like everybody else," Mendenhall said. "If it starts to show up in the polls, that's a great sign. We're not looking to be given anything. We're just looking to earn our way to equal access and to be treated the same."
There's every possibility BYU could go unbeaten and not reach the title game. If that happens, and one of the fortunate two entrants has a loss, look out for a system meltdown. Or at the very least, an outraged United States senator (no small annoyance to college football's big boys).
"Fundamentally unfair," Hatch called the BCS, which is why last spring, he conducted a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee to explore whether the BCS violates federal antitrust law. He thinks it does, and he can filibuster or fill a notebook with the reasons why. Regardless of what happens with BYU this year, Hatch wants fundamental change to the system -- and he makes the point that it's a rare matter on which President Obama and he agree.
Congress and the president have more important items on the agenda, but Hatch intends to send a letter to Obama and the Justice Department "outlining what I see as the antitrust case against the BCS." The BCS' lawyers disagree, of course, and it's unlikely anything will result that radically changes the system. But it's worth considering that college football's have-nots have made enough noise -- yes, off the field, but especially on -- to propel the right team, in the right circumstances, farther than anyone thought possible.
"We had a lot of people speak for us on a platform during the offseason," TCU coach Gary Patterson said. "The biggest thing we could do ... is to go out and back it up and win ballgames."
For the Mountain West and other leagues shut out of the BCS -- or at least relegated to second-class status -- the fight has been one of incremental progress. Utah reached the Fiesta Bowl after the 2004 season, and beat Pittsburgh. Boise State beat Oklahoma a couple years later, and notched impressive regular-season wins over Oregon last season and last week.
The Utes manhandled Alabama in last year's Sugar Bowl ("I think that shook a lot of people up," Hatch said). But the victory with potentially the biggest impact came last week at Jerry Jones' new stadium.
"The opportunity was large, the stage was large, the exposure was large," Mendenhall said.
It's one thing to say BYU beat Oklahoma. It's another to note how the Cougars did it. From his suite seat, as he watched the big screen and occasionally the action below, Hatch could see BYU and Oklahoma were pretty evenly matched. The Bradford injury was significant, but the score was tied at 7 when the quarterback went down late in the first half. He'd been hit repeatedly -- and cleanly, Hatch noted -- by Cougars breaking through a rebuilt offensive line. And BYU's fourth-quarter drive to win was a thing of beauty, directed by its own star quarterback.
Does Oklahoma win if Bradford doesn't get hurt? Probably. Chances are, the Sooners would have put up some points in the second half. But can you say for sure? No, and that's the point.
"I thought BYU played bigger," Air Force coach Troy Calhoun said. "That's the important part. Body-wise, they didn't get knocked off the ball at all."
A Mountain West coach sticking up for the league, as you'd expect. But did you watch? Thompson wondered: If you'd stepped off the plane from New Zealand (and understood American football, so yeah, the analogy is strained, but let's go with it) and watched the game, could you tell which team was No. 3 and which was No. 20?
"Toe-to-toe, they lined up for 60 minutes very favorably," Thompson said.
And completed a victory even Mendenhall admitted was potentially "monumental."
"Even choosing to schedule it was with the intent it could be a monumental game," Mendenhall said. "Not necessarily by outcome but what we would learn to eventually help us get to where we wanted to go."
It's fair to wonder now where the Cougars might be headed. Mendenhall only wants to think about Tulane, which makes perfect sense. Especially when you recall what happened to BYU in 2008, when it started 6-0 and climbed into the top 10 in the rankings before losing to TCU, then Utah, and finished the season with a loss to Arizona in the Las Vegas Bowl.
But we can fast-forward to what-ifs. As can fans like Hatch. Savvy politician that he is, the senator neatly worked his way around the last question: Let's say on the last Saturday in November, when Utah comes to Provo, both teams are unbeaten. Which team would Hatch back in the Holy War?
"That would be wonderful," he said. "Then let the best team win."
It would be wonderful, wouldn't it? A de facto Mountain West championship game, with a possible BCS championship berth on the line. It's unlikely, but it's no longer out of the question.
George Schroeder covers college football for the Eugene Register Guard and is the president of the FWAA. Follow him on Twitter.
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