The first question today, class, is: Should we take Brigham Young seriously? This isn't an idle query, because the Cougars, who are 9-0 and in just about everybody's Top 5, are closing in on No. 1. BYU No. 1? It even sounds funny. But are the Cougars honestly—honestly—any good? "Gosh, I don't know," says their coach, LaVell Edwards. "Maybe we're on the verge of being pretty good."
Indeed, the feeling around Provo is that BYU is as surprised as anyone to suddenly find itself mentioned in sentences that start with Washington, Texas or Nebraska. And a little embarrassed, too. Says athletic director Glen Tuckett, "We don't have a maniacal rage around here to be No. 1. We just think there are redeeming things about athletics being good for their own sake."
A lot of administrators at schools with big-time football programs espouse such ideals, but Cougar players and coaches actually put them into practice, on the field and off. Consider that at BYU every student—a term that also includes the football players—signed a Code of Honor upon applying for admission. The applicant had to answer a number of questions affirmatively, including:
"Do you live the law of chastity? This includes abstinence from all sexual relations outside the bonds of marriage. Do you observe the Word of Wisdom? This includes abstinence from alcoholic beverages, tobacco, tea and coffee. Do you observe high standards of taste and decency? This includes refraining from disorderly, lewd, indecent, or obscene conduct and expression."
O.K., now that you know the rules, go out and recruit yourself a football team. Good heavens, as Brigham Young himself might have said, that seems an impossible task. Not if you're La Veil Edwards. Consider that between 1922, when BYU began playing football, and 1971 its record was 174-235-23 against a lot of less-than-starry opposition. The Cougars won one championship during that span, the Western Athletic Conference title in 1965. Since Edwards became the coach in 1972 BYU has gone 114-37-1. And with its 42-9 rout of hapless Texas-El Paso last Saturday, Brigham Young clinched its ninth straight WAC crown.
The Cougars did it in what has become their style. They threw the ball with skill and dedication, and then they threw it some more. BYU passed 32 times and ran 20, and the reason it ran that much was to keep the score from rising to tasteless and obscene proportions. Don't forget the Code of Honor.
Pulling the trigger for the Cougars was Robbie Bosco, who completed 19 of 31 passes for 237 yards and four TDs with one interception (only his fifth of the season in 318 attempts) to remain the No. 1 college passer. "Not a great day," said Bosco, which gives some idea of his expectations. "Throwing an interception ruined it for me." All Bosco, a 6'2½", 188-pound junior from Roseville, Calif., did was show off an up-the-field arm that's better than former BYU star Steve Young's and display the cool intellect of a young man who does exactly what he's told. Draw up a play on the blackboard, and Bosco does precisely what the chalk says. No free-lancing. Adjusting, sure, but no craziness.
"Gosh," says Bosco, who says "gosh" a lot, "when you have five receivers out on every play, you ought to be able to find one of them open. I think every play we call will work, even if it's the wrong play against the wrong defense. See, on every play we know where to throw, whom to throw to and when to throw. Then all I have to do is do it."
Notwithstanding his dissatisfaction with his play against UTEP, Bosco's performance was as gorgeous as the snowcapped Wasatch Mountains that serve as the backdrop for Cougar Stadium. With nine minutes left in the first quarter, Bosco rolled left and lofted a 42-yard scoring pass down the sideline to wide receiver Glen Kozlowski. Gorgeous. Except it was a broken play. Koz was to cut in front of the cornerback and Bosco was to take a quick five-step drop and fire. But Kozlowski saw the strong safety moving away from him and decided to streak past the cornerback. That's how Bosco read things, too. "We lack talent," says Kozlowski, "but Coach Edwards finds ways to get us to overachieve."
Bosco's other scoring passes were far more in the BYU style: a four-yarder to wide receiver Adam Haysbert, an 11-yarder to split end Mark Bellini, a six-yarder to Haysbert. Just like a little run, these were little passes. Tight end Dave Mills had, yes, a gorgeous day, with six receptions for 72 yards, and Bosco completed at least two passes to each of six receivers. Talk about knowing how to keep peace in the family. Losing coach Bill Yung surveyed the damage and suggested it would be a good idea for BYU to leave the WAC and take its wrecking ball elsewhere. Like the Pac-10.
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.
On the other hand, assuming BYU finishes the regular season undefeated and untied, its lofty national ranking should enable the Holiday Bowl to attract a highly ranked opponent for the Cougars. So who knows? If BYU soundly beat a Top 15 team in the bowl...and Washington gets beat...and Nebraska....
However BYU fares in the polls, the lion's share of the credit for its success must go to Edwards. He knows BYU isn't going to get many 6'4" behemoths able to bench-press a horse and lead the Cougars to nirvana via the run and intimidation route. "I don't put any stock in blue-chip recruits anyway," says Edwards. "There are so many players out there who can play if given the opportunity." His first blue-chipper at BYU is tight end Trevor Molini, a freshman from Sparks, Nev., a non-Mormon who was recruited hard by all the biggies.
What Edwards did to compensate for the Cougars' congenital weaknesses was make an all-out commitment to passing. At least 80% of BYU's practices are devoted to it. After every pass play in practice, the quarterback must tell a coach why he threw where he did. That a receiver was open is not reason enough; the quarterback must explain what defense he reads before the snap. "I just don't think that the forward pass is a high-risk offense," says Edwards. "The wishbone is a high-risk offense."
What Edwards has done is fly in the face of the conventional wisdom, which says you must run to set obviously just one BYU scoring drive on Saturday: 70 yards in two plays, both runs. What do you think UTEP was expecting?
Mostly, BYU has things in perpective. Nobody is screaming "No. 1," and everybody is getting ready for church on Sunday, which isn't surprising when you listen to the coach. "Football is not the most important thing in the world," says Edwards. "And it's certainly not the most important thing in my life."
Fair enough. But make no mistake that whatever football is at BYU and wherever it falls in priorities, the Cougars are good. And the time just might come when BYU will be No. 1, and Cougar fans will be drinking soda pop (caffeine-free) in celebration.