With the 2013 regular season in the rear-view mirror, BYU football fans can stop and reflect on the Cougars' 8-4 finish.
It wasn't a bad season by any stretch of the imagination. It was quite good, in fact. There are plenty of teams that would love to win eight games and go to a bowl game, including in-state rival Utah.
BYU beat the likes of Utah State, Boise State, Georgia Tech, Houston and No. 25 Texas. Six of the teams BYU beat are going to bowl games.
In fact, BYU is No. 32 in strength of schedule, according to Jeff Sagarin's latest rankings.
Not bad at all. Plus, BYU's four losses were by 10 points or less.
Still, there's a feeling of disappointment surrounding the season. BYU had the schedule to make a real national impact. Imagine where the Cougars would be in the latest BCS rankings if they had run the table. While they probably wouldn't be in the Top 2, they certainly would have cracked the Top 5.
BYU's first BCS bowl could have finally been a reality.
Of course, all realistic talk of a BCS bowl game died in Week 1 with a 19-16 loss to Virginia, whose only other win came over FCS Virginia Military.
That's the single-biggest problem of being an independent. One loss spells apathy for the rest of the season when there's no conference title to win. There's little to play for except for a bowl game. Problem is, the bowl game is the same whether BYU finishes 6-6 or 11-1.
Meanwhile, Northern Illinois of the MAC is just one win away from its second-consecutive BCS bowl.
Maybe that's what hurts BYU fans the most. They've watched Boise State, Hawaii, TCU, NIU and arch-rival Utah all go to BCS bowl games. Yes, Bronco Mendenhall has fielded some solid teams during his tenure, and he's finished with 10 or more wins five times. Also, BYU has finished ranked in at least one major poll five times, including 2009 when it finished at No. 12.
However, the Cougars appear no closer to going to a BCS bowl than they did in 2005.
BYU isn't a bad team.
Bad teams don't beat the Longhorns 40-21. Bad teams don't have winning records against solid competition. Bad teams wouldn't have beaten the Aggies, Broncos and Yellow Jackets, all by double digits.
In fact, BYU has shown that it can, at least, hang with most teams across the country. In short, BYU is a good team.
But by the same token, BYU isn't a great team right now. Great teams don't lose to a 2-10 team. Great teams don't have a four-game losing streak to their arch-rival. Great teams don't let opportunities against teams like Wisconsin and Notre Dame slip away.
The Cougars haven't fielded a great team since going independent, and they need to do so at least once every few years to remain in the national spotlight. It's great to have the increased exposure that independence brings, but BYU has to win more big-time games on national TV to stay relevant in the national picture.
Imagine if BYU was in the Mountain West Conference this season. The Cougars beat both Utah State and Boise State by a combined score of 68-34. BYU would have won the Mountain Division, and it would be gearing up for the MWC Championship Game against Fresno State instead of Utah State.
That would give BYU fans something to cheer about. It would have given last week's game against Nevada meaning.
Unfortunately, the game against the Wolf Pack was largely meaningless, and frankly, BYU was listless in the first half.
Credit the coaching staff for getting the team back in gear for the second half. While this game wouldn't have hurt BYU as far as a bowl game was concerned, losing to Nevada would badly hurt the Cougars' recruiting efforts in that state.
Again, the margin for error as a football independent is razor-thin. It also doesn't help when Mendenhall reiterates that BYU's goal as an independent is to win the national championship.
Remember that a team like BYU must run the table to even hope for a chance at a title, even under the new College Football Playoff system coming next season. Furthermore, there's no guarantee that a 12-0 record would lead to a playoff bid.
So, if BYU's main goal is to win the national championship, don't be surprised when the fans are disappointed year after year.
The bottom line is that BYU has to "Rise Up" if it wants to be a national power as an independent. It can start with a great showing against a Pac-12 opponent in the Fight Hunger Bowl.
There's still hope for greatness as players like quarterback Taysom Hill and running back Jamaal Williams continue to develop. Still, BYU needs a great season sooner rather than later, for independence and national relevance to go hand-in-hand long-term.
Lafe Peavler is a sportswriter intern at the Deseret News.
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