Editor's note: This is the ninth in an occasional series exploring the issues related to BYU scheduling football games as an independent.
PROVO — This could be the toughest schedule the BYU football team has faced in its history.
In this age of independence, athletic director Tom Holmoe and coach Bronco Mendenhall are scheduling boldly.
This fall, the Cougars are slated to meet four teams that are included in some preseason top 25 polls (Texas, Boise State, Wisconsin and Notre Dame). Plus, there are emotional games against in-state rivals Utah and Utah State. The season opener is a long trip to Virginia of the Atlantic Coast Conference.
In 2013, the Cougars will play teams from eight different conferences and will travel nearly 6,000 miles.
“It’s a tough schedule,” said Holmoe. “We’re taking them on. A lot of teams around the country look at their (schedule) and say, ‘There’s not a game on there we can’t win.’ I’m glad our guys think that. You could do that with a mediocre schedule and as an independent that doesn’t mean much. I haven’t tried to put together mediocre schedules. So in the future, if there’s a bad schedule, it’s on me. But you can’t get everybody you want. Not every schedule going forward is going to look like this year. I can’t always get six good ‘Big Five’ teams.”
About one year before the 2013 schedule was finalized and announced, Mendenhall said it “will be the toughest schedule we have played. When you see it, you will say, ‘What, is he crazy?’ But it is good.”
During the school's first two years as an independent, Holmoe put together a football schedule that was front-loaded with high-profile opponents, while the month of November lacked sizzle.
But year three of independence features marquee games from the beginning of the season to the end. After playing a steady diet of Western Athletic Conference foes in November the past two seasons, BYU will play at Wisconsin and Notre Dame this November.
“The first couple of years, our fans have been patient with us. Now that the tough schedule is here, we’ve got to play,” Holmoe said. “That puts pressure on the team and the coaches. But this is athletics. Our fans want us to be playing in the big games, on the road and at home. They are easier to get on the road. They’re great to get them at home. As the years unfold, the schedules will kind of go a little bit up and down. I don’t think you’ll see bad schedules, I don’t think you’ll see fantastic schedules. But you’ll see good schedules.”
Putting together the right kind of schedule is a delicate balance that athletic directors must manage. Especially at BYU. Guiding an independent program, Holmoe schedules 12 games every year.
Schedule a bunch of weak teams, and the fan support wanes and national respect erodes. Schedule a bevy of top-flight teams, and there’s a risk of a losing season. BYU has experienced both sides of the equation. In 2000, in legendary coach LaVell Edwards’ final season at the helm, the Cougars opened the season with three straight road games against Florida State, Virginia (back-to-back trips to the East Coast) and Air Force before the home opener against nationally ranked Mississippi State. BYU began with a 1-3 record. Then, midway through the season, the Cougars traveled to Syracuse, where they lost by four touchdowns. “It killed us. It tore us up,” former BYU defensive lineman Hans Olsen remembered of that season's schedule. “I look at this (2013) schedule, and this is a tougher schedule than that. I think this might be the toughest schedule ever for BYU.”
In 1991 — Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Ty Detmer's senior year — the Cougars started the season playing Florida State, UCLA and Penn State on the road. The result? An 0-3 record. The schedule eased up considerably from there and BYU finished 8-3-2.
When the Cougars suffered through three consecutive losing seasons from 2002-04, a factor that contributed to the team's struggles was a difficult schedule. BYU's nonconference schedules featured teams like USC, Boise State, Stanford and Notre Dame.
On the other hand, in 2001, which was Gary Crowton’s first season, it appeared the Cougars would be facing a challenging schedule. After starting 3-0, BYU had a game at nationally ranked Mississippi State. But that was days before the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and that game was postponed until December.
By then, Mississippi State had a losing record. Despite beating a Southeastern Conference opponent on the road, the Cougars didn't benefit much.
BYU boasted a perfect 12-0 record, but hadn't faced any ranked teams, and the BCS computers didn't like BYU schedules. Ironically, one of the teams the Cougars beat that season was Cal — coached by Holmoe — a team that won only one game that season. The Cougars were released from BCS consideration before the regular season ended.
Meanwhile, BYU’s 1984 national championship has been maligned by critics for decades because of its so-called weak schedule that season. The Cougars did upset No. 3 Pitt in the season opener, but the Panthers ended up with a losing season.
In this new era of a four-team playoff, Holmoe knows that it’s important to schedule the best competition possible.
“When we went independent, and in light of where you see the playoffs going and college football is going, if you want to be relevant, you don’t want to slip in,” he said.
Holmoe understands that the fan base would like to see the Cougars play prestigious opponents on a regular basis.
“I know what people want, but I can’t deliver that every time,” Holmoe said.
One of the challenges is not knowing how good a team will be by the time the game comes around.
“The thing that’s hard about it is, when you set schedules — and we’re scheduling teams into the 2020s already — if I schedule Notre Dame in 2022, I don’t know how good they’re going to be," Holmoe said. "They might be going to the national championship game, or not in the top 25. But what everyone can understand, when you schedule those games, you’re scheduling a name. I think we’ve scheduled names now into the future that I would anticipate would always be good. Sometimes you schedule teams into the future that you think might not be great, then when the game comes, they’re really, really good.”
How will Holmoe evaluate the 2013 season, considering the degree of difficulty this schedule offers?
"If we win 10 games this year, that’s a really, really good season. If we win nine games, or eight games, it’s a good season," he said. "It’s not necessarily the number of wins that you have. We have teams that haven’t won as many games, but they’re progressing up. With this team, this staff and this schedule, I’m looking for progress. That’s not to say we can’t be really good. But I don’t think the number of wins will necessarily say exactly how we are. We could not win as many games, and still look really good. If we blow games, that’s different."
2013 BYU schedule
Aug. 31 — at Virginia
Sept. 7 — Texas
Sept. 21 — Utah
Sept. 27 — Middle Tennessee
Oct. 4 — at Utah State
Oct. 12 — Georgia Tech
Oct. 19 — at Houston
Oct. 25 — Boise State
Nov. 9 — at Wisconsin
Nov. 16 — Idaho State
Nov. 23 — at Notre Dame
Nov. 30 — at Nevada