BYU pulled off a miracle 25 years ago; will it ever happen again?
The 1984 BYU Cougars were voted national champions after finishing 13-0
If schedule strength had mattered as much then, they wouldn't have been
Under current BCS, it's very difficult for a mid-major to repeat the feat
PROVO, Utah -- Twenty-five years ago this fall, BYU hijacked college football. The sport has been fighting back ever since.
Unranked at the start of the season, playing in the lightly regarded Western Athletic Conference, the Cougars finished the 1984 season as the nation's lone undefeated team. No formal championship game existed then, and two weeks after rising to No. 1 the Cougars beat a 6-5 Michigan team in the Holiday Bowl. In a highly controversial decision the AP and coaches voted the 13-0 Cougars national champions.
Twenty-five years later, BYU remains the last school from outside of today's major conferences to win a national title. Today, coaches and players from that triumphant '84 BYU team wonder whether it will ever happen again.
"With the way the [BCS] system is now, there's no question we wouldn't have been No. 1," said BYU quarterback Robbie Bosco. "We probably would have gone to a better bowl, and that would have been great, but there would have been four teams higher than us in the polls."
That's essentially what happened last season to BYU's rival, Utah, which finished its regular season unbeaten but never rose higher than No. 6 in the BCS standings. The Utes earned a lucrative trip to the Sugar Bowl, but despite stunning SEC runner-up Alabama, had to settle for No. 2 in the final AP poll behind 13-1 Florida, which toppled 12-2 Oklahoma in the BCS Championship Game.
The snub touched off yet another postseason controversy. "We recognize the Florida Gators as the national champions last season," said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. "But we certainly would have welcomed the opportunity to find out whether or not we were the best team in the country."
Representatives from Utah's conference, the Mountain West, have made it clear they'd like to see a college playoff, but BCS officials recently extended their current arrangement through 2013.
The Mountain West isn't just fighting for Utah. As he enters the cafeteria on the second floor of BYU's athletic complex, current Cougars quarterback Max Hall walks right past a glass case that displays BYU's 1984 national championship trophy.
"You respect it a lot more now because of how hard it is to get to that point," said Hall, who's gone 21-5 in two seasons as a starter and played in two Las Vegas Bowls. "You really have to be perfect, and even sometimes you do have a perfect season and don't get a shot, like Utah last year."
To be perfect this season, BYU will have to accomplish the daunting feat of beating Oklahoma and Florida State and running the table in the Mountain West, which last year produced top 10 teams Utah and TCU. It seems unfathomable, but if it happens the Cougar-faithful will expect their just reward.
"If BYU could pull off a miracle and beat Oklahoma and Florida State, you'd like to think they'd have a chance," said LaVell Edwards, the Cougars' Hall of Fame coach from 1972-2000. "It sure would be interesting."
Twenty-five years ago, Edwards' team pulled off its own miracle -- one that has yet to be replicated.
Heading into 1984, Edwards' program had already won eight consecutive WAC championships and appeared in six straight Holiday Bowls. The Cougars had gained national recognition for their innovative passing offense, which had produced star quarterbacks like Jim McMahon and Steve Young. BYU won its final 11 games the year before and earned the school's first top 10 ranking.
Still, to most of the country BYU was something of a circus act -- a cute Mormon school out West that threw the ball a lot. Even within the program, "No one had ever discussed the national championship," said return specialist Vai Sikahema. "Not once."
The first time the topic came up, Sikahema said, was the night before BYU's season opener at Pittsburgh. The Panthers, led by future NFL stars Chris Doleman and Bill Fralic, were ranked third; the Cougars, having lost first-round draft picks Young, tight end Gordon Hudson and linebacker Todd Shell from the previous year, were unranked. The game would be ESPN's first live college football broadcast and the Cougars' first nationally televised regular-season game in five years.
"One of our team captains, Craig Garick [now deceased], stood up in a team meeting and said, 'If we win tomorrow, we will have a clear shot at running the table, and possibly a shot at the national championship,'" said Sikahema. "It was the first time I had ever heard BYU and national championship in the same sentence."
On the bus ride from the hotel to Pitt Stadium, center Robert Anae, now BYU's offensive coordinator, could tell that his seatmate, freshman running back Freddie Whittingham (brother of the current Utah head coach), was nervous.
"He said, 'Do you think we can just call up Pittsburgh and let them know we'd rather play touch than tackle today?'" recalled Anae.
Those fears proved unfounded as BYU pulled off a 20-14 stunner. The next day, the Cougars debuted in the AP poll (which at that time ranked 20 teams) at No. 13.
BYU returned home the next week and pounded Baylor -- a bowl team the year before -- 47-13, with Bosco throwing five first-half touchdowns. In just two weeks, the Cougars had risen from unranked to No. 8. "I was still a little bit of a pessimist [after the Pitt game]," said Bosco, "but after the next week, we all felt we could be pretty good."
BYU endured a couple of close calls upon entering conference play. It took a miraculous goal-line stop by safety Kyle Morrell to turn the tide in an 18-13 win at Hawaii, and a last-minute touchdown to edge Wyoming. Skeptical voters dropped the Cougars slightly in the polls after each scare. "We felt like we had to win by 40 every week," said backup quarterback Blaine Fowler, now a color analyst for the Mountain West's TV network.
Eventually, however, the Cougars began rolling, beating overmatched foes by scores like 42-9 and 34-3. While Bosco threw for 3,875 yards, earning him a third-place Heisman finish, the defense, led by future NFL linebackers Kurt Gouveia and Leon White, held opponents to just 14 points per game.
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