Pressure has always surrounded football players in Provo during the fall, but every game has greater meaning this season as BYU embarks on its journey into independence.
BYU essentially has to run the table and go undefeated to have any shot at a date in the Louisiana Superdome for the 2011 National Championship game.
The BCS National Championship game will take center stage in New Orleans on Jan. 9, 2012, and the Cougars have their sights set high this season. As BYU enters its first season of independence it no longer has the ability to win a conference championship and players no longer have the opportunity to receive weekly conference player awards.
In past seasons when BYU got off to a slow start, the beginning of conference play was like the start of a new season. Every game will take on greater meaning this year with BYU’s hopes to gain a shot at a BCS bid especially because an early loss by BYU may affect the squad’s motivation.
Legendary coach LaVell Edwards said although he believes the increased exposure with ESPN will benefit BYU’s football program, reaching the national championship game as an independent will be an extremely challenging task.
“If the goal is to get into the national championship game, then of course that makes every game right from the start especially that important,” Edwards said.
Head coach Bronco Mendenhall, on the other hand, is not worried about a few early losses. He said his team will continue to stay motivated because of the inspiring nature of playing in front of a national audience on ESPN. Mendenhall also acknowledged that winning the state championship and being the best college football team in the state of Utah comes first, followed by carving a way into a BCS bowl game.
“It’s really no different to me than being part of a conference, being part of the Mountain West, etc.,” Mendenhall said of the team’s move to independence. “Our goal is to win a national championship. We know if we do that we are going to have to end up being undefeated and at some point we will be. Along the way with every game that we play, win or lose, we learn from it, we move forward, as we did a year ago. We ended up finishing very strong. Our players with the schedule we have, with the exposure we have, I think we actually have more to play for now.”
Mendenhall said with the current state of the BCS system BYU will end up in a BCS bowl game if it wins every game. The standard has been set, according to Mendenhall, and he is anxious for his team to rise up and meet that standard.
According to current Bowl Championship Series rules, BYU has to finish ranked No. 1 or No. 2 in the final BCS rankings in order to play in the national championship game. The final standings are compiled through rankings established by the Harris Interactive College Football Poll, USA Today Coaches Poll and computer rankings.
Although Notre Dame has a special rule granting its football team an automatic BCS game berth if the Fighting Irish finish the season ranked in the top eight of the final BCS standings, BYU currently has no special rules to accommodate its independence. In other words, reaching a BCS game other than the national championship game will prove to be extremely difficult for BYU.
BYU Athletic Director Tom Holmoe said he is glad Mendenhall has his sights set on the National Championship game. Holmoe said the move to independence brings BYU many opportunities and the team will do everything possible this year to reach a BCS game.
“I would say that half the teams in the country right now are sitting in their locker rooms and coaches’ office saying, ‘We’re going to have a shot at the national championship.’ Now 75 percent of those don’t really have a great chance, but you want them to have that opportunity,” Holmoe said. “You can’t get to that final game unless you’ve taken a pathway to get there that is challenging and that is filled with opportunities. If we go undefeated in this schedule, we’ll be darn good and a lot of people will take notice.”
When asked about the possibility of reaching the national championship game, BYU quarterback Jake Heaps said he thinks the players on this team can make a run at the title game. Heaps wants to overcome the bitter taste left in his mouth from last season and feels the talent and work ethic of his teammates will allow his team to pull off a great run this year and in future seasons to come.
“For people who say we can’t win a national championship, it’s impossible, we just say, ‘OK, just watch us. We’re going to make it possible,’” Heaps said. “Impossible is nothing and we carry that motto around with us.”