PROVO — BYU football coach Bronco Mendenhall said this week that without Mountain West Conference affiliation, he felt liberated. It certainly sounded that way.
For starters, he said the best team lost the BYU-Utah game last fall — a bold statement considering his own team was barely bowl-eligible. He freely enumerated the players that would be ineligible this year, including controversial receiver O'Neill Chambers. He even announced he had signed a three-year contract extension but had refused a longer agreement.
And, oh yes, one other thing: The Cougars will henceforth be shooting for the national championship.
Wow. Looks like Bronco has bolted the stable.
Welcome to the new and unapologetic Cougars, still polite and respectful, but darned if they don't have a touch of Jim McMahon in them.
"Our goal," Mendenhall said, "is to win a national championship. To do that we'll have to be undefeated, and at some point we will be."
Athletics director Holmoe said, "I'm glad Bronco is going into this saying our goal is to win the national championship."
Quarterback Jake Heaps added, "We're confident in ourselves and believe we can go out and have a successful season this year, and our goal is to play for a national championship, and we dare someone to say we can't, because we're going to prove people wrong."
Heaps said that he wasn't predicting a title immediately, but "we believe we can do it."
Quick, someone get some ice packs. These guys are running a fever.
While I'm not buying for a minute that BYU will win a national title as an independent, I have no problem with the goal. It ought to be every team's objective. Part of the reason for the attitude is that it's happened before. The Cougars won the championship in 1984, but that was back when their toughest opponent was ... well ... they didn't really have one. Now they expect to play maybe half a dozen games every year against teams from big conferences.
No way they go undefeated on that schedule.
Even if they did, they'd have to convince the BCS and its computers that they are more deserving of a title than Utah, Hawaii, TCU or Boise State when those teams went undefeated.
Realistically, BYU doesn't have a lot of options in the goal-setting department. For decades, it repeated the old line about winning the conference title and letting the rest take care of itself. But now the Cougars have eliminated the middleman. Gone are the chains of conference alignment that limited certain opportunities. But also gone is the security of automatic scheduling and bowl berths.
To say you're playing for a national championship when you've had only one undefeated season in your history might seem overly ambitious, but what's BYU supposed to say — that it's playing for the Beehive Boot? (Mendenhall actually did mention that, too.)
I like the audacity, as long as the Cougars don't lose a game or two and then start chiding fans for unrealistic expectations.
Back in the 1980s, just as Utah State was slipping into the long dark night of irrelevance, I interviewed quarterback Gym Kimball the day before the season-opener. I asked about his goals for the season.
"Win the national championship," he said.
I waited for the punch line.
"Isn't that what everyone plays for?" he continued.
That seemed agreeable, if unrealistic, to me. Here was a guy who wasn't taking the back alleys.
In 1984, the Cougars were in the lightly regarded WAC. They did play Pitt, ranked No. 3, but that Panther team went on to win just three games. Baylor won five, Michigan six. Now look at BYU's schedule: Mississippi, Texas, Oregon State, TCU, Utah and a Central Florida team that was ranked in some preseason polls. BYU won't run the table on that, even if those teams are having down years.
Beyond 2011, BYU's schedule includes games against Georgia Tech, Texas, Notre Dame, Boise State, Utah and Oregon State. If the Cougars scale back to two or three big-conference opponents a year, and a bunch of WAC teams, I don't see them getting in the BCS championship game, either — even with ESPN's constant promotion.
Still, I applaud the approach. BYU has done everyone a favor by simplifying the formula and being honest about it. Now all it needs to do is schedule wisely, win every game and campaign like there's no tomorrow.