BYU climbing back to the top of the mountain

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In suffering its worst loss in eight decades, UCLA averaged .56 yards per rushing attempt. The Bruins seldom laid a glove on Cougars quarterback Max Hall, who has yet to be sacked this season. His 186.8 efficiency rating is seventh-best in the nation. A redshirt sophomore who transferred from Arizona State two years ago, Hall has completed 91 of his 117 passes for 1,095 yards and 12 touchdowns -- all of them against UCLA. What's that you say? Hall only had seven touchdown passes against the Bruins? I stand corrected. What I meant to say, of course, was that he could have thrown for 12, had coach Bronco Mendenhall not taken mercy on the visitors, pulling his starter midway through the third quarter.

It's okay to mock UCLA this week -- the Bruins and whichever grandee(s) in the athletic department had the idea to take a out a Hubris-drenched, preseason full-page ad in the L.A. Times declaring: "The Football Monopoly in Los Angeles is Officially Over."

Don't know about that. What has been terminated, officially, is Rick Neuheisel's Westwood honeymoon. While there is shame in suffering so lopsided a loss to a foe from what is widely (if mistakenly) considered an inferior conference, there is less shame than you might think in getting clubbed by the BYU Cougars. This is a smart, deep, superbly coached, well-disciplined club that has won 11 games each of the past two seasons, and is now sitting on the nation's longest winning streak, at 13 games.

Following last season's rash of giant-slayings, college football's great leveling continues unabated in 2008. After the Pac-10 went 0-4 against the Mountain West last weekend -- and 3-7 overall; after a string of sorry performances by teams from the ACC, Big Ten and Big East so far this season, the lines between the so-called power conferences and those campesinos on the wrong side of the divide have never been quite so blurred, so indistinct. After their slaughter of the Bruins, the Cougars jumped from 18th in the AP poll to 14th, where they remain underrated.

One of the things that makes the college game more interesting than the NFL -- I actually wrote a book about this -- is its boundless variety. College football is a cornucopia of offenses, of traditions, ancient blood grudges and football cultures. And there isn't a more distinct, unique program than the one Mendenhall took over following the 2004 season.

The once-proud program was coming off its third straight losing season, a stretch of failure unequalled since the early 1960s. Mendenhall has returned the program to its former place by, among other things, embracing its uniqueness.

"It became clear to me that I was to make the football program as distinct and different as possible," he told BYU Magazine last year, "because this institution and its purpose are distinct and different and unique. BYU isn't like anywhere else. It wasn't designed to be."

There is a level of maturity and commitment among these players that simply doesn't exist at other programs. Above academics, above football, above his social life, the typical Cougar is instructed to "acknowledge and develop" his faith in the Mormon Church, as Mendenhall told Jim Rome earlier this week.

The guys who end up here have to really want to be here. Mendehnall draws from a pool of strong students "who want to live by the honor code here at BYU, which is: No alcohol, no tobacco, no premarital sex."

(Which goes a long way toward explaining another of the Cougars' eye-popping stats: 30 of the players are married.)

"We found that if we bring those type of kids," the coach told Rome, "we can ask the world of them."

More than 70 of the current players are returned missionaries. It's an interesting pro-and-con. Is the downside of taking a two-year break from football greater than the upside? Yes, guys lose weight and strength while going door to door, proselytizing for their faith. But fitness and foot speed come back.

Starting center Dallas Reynolds anchors a Cougars offensive line which, in addition to yielding no sacks, has yet to be flagged for holding this season. He embarked on his mission, to Seattle, straight out of Provo High. It was an eye-opening experience. "You have something that you find joy in, something you want to share with others," he told me, "and you get a lot of doors slammed in your face. You learn a lot about life, and about yourself. I think everyone who comes back [to football] from a mission comes back with more maturity, and a greater focus."

Reynolds returned from his mission right around the time Mendenhall got the head job. He recalls the first day of spring ball in 2005. After busing the team to the foot of Y Mountain -- distinguished by the gigantic, century-old block "Y" overlooking the valley -- Mendenhall instructed the Cougars to hike up to the "Y".

"It looked so close from the bus," Reynolds recalls. "But it felt like it took forever to get there." The payoff was considerable: "You can see the campus, the stadium, the whole valley."

Mendenhall's simple message: The view from the top is nice, isn't it? So what do you say we get back there?

The Cougars walked down the mountain, then got to work climbing back up. Today they are but one of several mid-majors with BCS-busting potential, along with East Carolina, and fellow MWC members Utah and TCU. While no one knows which of them is most most deserving of a BCS berth, the UCLA Bruins should have some pretty strong opinions on the subject.