PROVO — For years, during the program’s heyday, BYU football would have viewed last week’s game as nothing more than a glorified scrimmage.
Yet, there was a fair amount of angst when the Cougars traveled across the country to play Massachusetts at the New England Patriots stadium. And then, after the Minutemen quickly jumped out to a 10-0 lead, some in Cougar town were in borderline panic mode.
In time, BYU assumed control of the game and won easily enough. But even worrying about the outcome illustrates the difference between where the program is now compared to 10 years ago.
BYU football is full of rich tradition, a ledger ranging from a national championship to most of the individual awards possible in the college game. Conversely, the UMass Minutemen, who won at LaVell Edwards Stadium last season, is 10-33 in the last five years.
After not qualifying for a bowl last season, making it the first time in 12 years, BYU needs one more win to reach the six required for postseason eligibility. The Cougars are favored to beat New Mexico State at home this season and will likely be underdogs to close the regular season against Utah, who they have not beaten since 2009.
“I’m not going to sugarcoat it — how sad is the state of a program that a game like (UMass) is even a question,” former BYU linebacker Bryan Kehl said during an interview with The Zone Sports Network the day before the game. “It’s just disappointing; it’s unfortunate. We’ve got to get that fixed. There’s so many things as to why we’re in that situation right now.”
The situation that Kehl refers to involves competing at a higher level like the program did during his tenure as a player. He played on Mountain West Conference championship teams his junior and senior seasons in 2006-07, when BYU went a combined 22-4.
But much has changed for BYU since Kehl was helping the team regularly appear in the Top 25. To him, it starts with the Honor Code that forbids many things that are often prevalent on college campuses.
“The Honor Code affects us. People maybe don’t what to talk about that, but it is what it is. It absolutely affects us,” Kehl said. “If you take the pool of Division 1-caliber players and who we can recruit out of that pool, it is really small. Let me be clear, I like the Honor Code. I followed the Honor Code. It is who BYU is. ... I’m not advocating let’s get rid of the Honor Code.”
Arguing against Kehl’s opinion, the Honor Code requirements have been around for decades and didn’t seem to impede BYU’s incredible run for success for years under coach LaVell Edwards. From 1976-1996, BYU won or tied for 17 championships in the Western Athletic Conference.
The theory goes, with the prevalence of social media, that BYU athletes are under a microscope at a much greater level compared to the last 40 years. Increased academic requirements also have hindered the football program’s ability to recruit a wider range of athletes.
“We have to understand and be realistic with the limitations that we have," Kehl said. So our pool to recruit from is drastically smaller. I don’t think it made as big of a difference in 1980 as is does in 2018. There’s a lot of reasons for that.”
For some, leaving the Mountain West to become an independent also has contributed to BYU’s slippage. Since going independent in 2011, the Cougars have suffered six consecutive losses to Utah and reached double-digit wins only in the first season, when the schedule was not as difficult.
In fairness, considering many players leave on two-year missions before enrolling, third-year coach Kalani Sitake is starting to have most of his recruits in the program. And this year’s team, with freshman Zach Wilson at quarterback, has shown substantial improvement over last season.
“To the Cougar nation, don’t jump up the cliff,” Kehl said. “There’s always hope. I love our program. I love our coaches.”