The Cougar defense looked porous at times, but UTEP crossed the goal line only once. The linchpin of the D, senior tackle Jim Herrmann, put in another big day's work and admitted afterward that playing defense on an offense-oriented team can get depressing. "But one thing about the offense," says Herrmann. "It's good." Indeed, BYU is first in the nation in passing (340 yards per game), first in total offense (479.6 yards per) and second in scoring (37.3 points per).
Still, a lot of folks don't believe BYU is as formidable as its numbers suggest. "People think we shouldn't be any good because we're just Mormons," says Bosco. "If we were 0-12, everybody would say it's because we're Mormons. But if we're 12-0, nobody will say it's because we're Mormons."
In truth, Mormonism has to be a factor in any analysis of BYU's place in the college football hierarchy. Consider that this year nine players are spread around the world serving 18-month missions for the church. One of them is Sean Covey, a sophomore quarterback, who may be the heir apparent to Bosco; Covey is spending the fall in South Africa. Just back from a mission to Honduras is Mike Young, Steve's brother and another hot quarterback prospect.
So how does Edwards handle these religious sabbaticals? Easy. He encourages them. "If a player asks me if he should accept a mission, I tell him he ought to go," says Edwards, a Mormon. This year's squad includes 52 returned missionaries. "For years, people said we couldn't win because we're a church school," says Edwards, "because of the missions, when the kids go off to teach love and compassion, because it's a restrictive environment, because of the school's location, because there aren't many good players in Utah, and four Division I schools in the state are trying to get the few there are. But you can find guys who'll accept this environment. Rather than worry about what we couldn't do, I set out to concentrate on what we could."
Which is win. Since 1979 the Cougars have gone 62-9, and in three of those seasons they finished with only one defeat. With 20 straight victories, BYU has the longest current winning streak in Division I-A. The most significant win in that five-year span—yes, the most important victory in the history of Brigham Young—came in 1979, when the Cougars beat Texas A&M 18-17. The Aggies were an excellent team then, and suddenly the college football world began to wonder whether BYU was capable of more than beating up on UTEP and Weber State.
What hurts the Cougars is their lack of black players and the quality of the WAC. BYU has never had much speed in a game in which the three most important factors are speed, speed and speed. A primary reason is that few blacks are attracted to the Mormon Church, which until a few years ago didn't allow blacks full status. This year BYU has seven black players.
As for the competition in the WAC, it's really a lot better than skeptics will admit. Air Force has become a formidable team, and Wyoming and Hawaii are dangerous. But the conference gets no respect, partly because it plays in oblivion—for example, the last time a major network telecast a BYU game nationally was in 1979—and partly because no WAC school has a long-standing football tradition. BYU comes closest, and its salad days didn't begin until 1976. Yet in the last three seasons, WAC teams have played better than .500 football against non-conference competition. Still, you say, the WAC is hardly the SEC or Big Eight. True, and the Cougars themselves admit that their record over the last decade wouldn't be as impressive if they'd had to face, say, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State on a regular basis.
Nonetheless, the word is out on BYU, even outside the WAC. Nobody will say so publicly, but Minnesota wants out of its commitment to play in Provo in 1987. It's no mystery why. Next year BYU opens at home against UCLA and Washington. Remember that BYU whipped UCLA last year, and the Bruins went on to win the Rose Bowl. Baylor and Pitt both became victims this season. In 1982 Georgia and Herschel Walker narrowly escaped BYU in Athens. Colorado and Washington State got the message in 1981 that Brigham Young had arrived, and Wisconsin and SMU heard the same news in 1980.
Thus, the facts show that these Mormons can play. They are, to end the debate, good. And they are, to end the debate, to be taken seriously. But can they end up No. 1? Well.... "Being No. 1 probably isn't going to happen here," says Edwards. "Actually, it's kind of scary to think it even could happen." Yet, after the UTEP game, Edwards got in the spirit and started talking to his players about how winning a national championship was no longer a pipe dream.
To end up as the consensus No. 1, BYU probably needs for Washington, Texas and Nebraska to lose. Also, the Cougars must count on the polls not to elevate, say, unbeaten South Carolina over them. Typically, that's not done without the higher-ranked team stumbling. Then again, the voters have never had to deal with the possibility of a national champion coming out of San Diego's Holiday Bowl. That's where BYU will play on Dec. 21 because the WAC and the Holiday Bowl have a contract calling for the conference champion to play in the game. Despite rumors to the contrary, the Holiday Bowl isn't planning to release the Cougars from that obligation so that they can go to a major bowl, where they would presumably play a higher-ranked team and have a better shot at winning the national title.