SALT LAKE CITY — Utah State and BYU both lost their final regular season games and will now turn their attention to December bowl games, and a chance to add one more win to their season total.
BYU’s final game resulted in a heartbreaking loss to rival Utah, after leading by 20 points throughout much of the third quarter. Utah State lost late at Boise State, and with it, their chance of hosting the Mountain West Conference Championship game Saturday.
While neither finished their seasons how they’d like, both had incredible highs this season. BYU knocked off Arizona on the road after being a double-digit underdog going into the season opener. Two weeks later, the Cougars traveled to Wisconsin and shut down then sixth-ranked team in the country, spoiling their College Football Playoff hopes.
Utah State narrowly lost their season opener to Michigan State, then rattled off 10-straight wins en route to a Top 15 ranking in the Associated Press Top 25 Poll. Had Utah State knocked off Boise State, they’d be hosting Fresno State and would be hoping for a Memphis upset over Central Florida in the American Athletic Conference Championship to claim a New Year's Six bowl game.
While it didn’t happen, the potential for the outcome was nearly a reality. But looking at Utah State’s schedule, did they have a better season than BYU? The easy answer is yes, given their 45-20 blowout in a head-to-head matchup against the Cougars and a Top 15 ranking. But upon closer review, it’s debatable.
Utah State’s best win this season was likely their blowout victory over BYU. Otherwise, a win in conference over Hawaii and a close loss at Michigan State were the Aggies' most notable outings.
BYU blew out the same Hawaii team. And wins over Arizona and Wisconsin are far more notable. BYU was the 20th-ranked team in the country after beating McNeese State in Week 4, and would have benefited from entering the ease of a Mountain West Conference schedule. Unfortunately, the Cougars then faced a tough Washington team, losing 35-7, and never recovered in the rankings.
BYU finished the season with the 46th-toughest schedule in the country, but it did little to earn them any recognition this season beyond a bowl appearance. Utah State finished the season playing the 128th-toughest schedule, the third easiest in the country, and were knocking on the door of a Mountain West title and a New Year's Six bowl appearance.
Simply put, when it comes to non-Power Five programs, national rankings depend solely on win total, not quality of opponents. Central Florida, who is ranked No. 7 in both the AP and the USA Today Amway Coaches Poll and No. 9 in the College Football Playoff rankings, finished with the 95th-toughest schedule this season.
Competing weekly against tough opponents is a nice calling card for BYU to recruits, and might be a prerequisite to keep ESPN happy as their television affiliate. But it hasn’t enhanced the quality of their brand.
BYU may not want to rejoin the Mountain West Conference and accept a spot in a lower-level conference than Utah, proving a long-term admission they’ve fallen behind their in-state rival and create a tide they might not be able to reverse.
Regardless, Utah State laid out a convincing argument highlighting the value of conference affiliation, even if they fell one game short of a championship appearance. Ten-straight victories over lesser opponents earned Utah State four-straight weeks in the Top 25.
It may be worth examining the Mountain West Conference as a future option for BYU if independence continues to net them 6-6 seasons.
Ben Anderson is a contributor at KSL.com, follow him on Twitter @BensHoops. Listen to him 2-6, Monday through Friday with Kyle Gunther on ESPN 700.