By Brett Larsen
The BYU football team will soon be back in action.
Cross your fingers, everybody.
The Cougars are about to prove they”re more than a two-man show. At least, I hope so.
At the risk of filling my inbox with hate mail, I admit I was skeptical of the team in 2001.
I watched it pound on patsies like Nevada, Tulane and Cal, survive shootouts with Colorado State and Wyoming and squeak by Utah and UNLV en route to a 12-0 record.
The Cougars had two bona fide stars in Luke Staley and Brandon Doman, and it was their late-game heroics that often kept BYU”s perfect streak alive.
And still I was unconvinced.
Much of my skepticism of the team grew from my experience as a freshman in 1996.
I saw the Cougars of that year go 14-1, rise to a No. 5 national ranking and win the Cotton Bowl on New Year”s Day.
And they did it against the likes of Texas A&M, Kansas State and Wyoming (which went 10-2 and finished at No. 17 that year).
Their only loss was to No. 13 Washington in Seattle.
Last year, the Cougars didn”t play a single ranked opponent. Mississippi State, which was supposed to be the toughest team on the schedule, went 3-8.
In 1996, I believed that BYU was as good as its ranking.
I wanted to think the same last year, I really did. But the Cougars” lack of a win over a big-time team made it hard to do.
I felt vindicated when Hawaii bludgeoned BYU in the most lopsided battle on Oahu since Pearl Harbor.
During the 72-45 debacle, the Cougars made the Warriors look like the St. Louis Rams, and all on national television.
As I turned off the TV in the third quarter, I thought, “Would Miami or Oregon look so helpless against Hawaii?”
When BYU was overlooked by the Bowl Alliance in 1996, I was angry. I thought it was an injustice.
In 2001, the BCS snub was an act of mercy.
Imagine what could”ve happened had the same Cougars that played in Honolulu showed up to play Florida in the Orange Bowl!
Now, please don”t misunderstand all this. I”m just trying to illustrate why I was unsure about the team last year.
But, even with the route at Hawaii and the disappointing 28-10 loss to Louisville in the Liberty Bowl, it would be foolish to call a 12-2 season anything but a smashing success and a great start for new coach Gary Crowton.
Thankfully, too, the Cougars will get a chance to silence critics like me this fall.
BYU runs up against Syracuse on Aug. 29. The Orangemen finished 10-3 in 2001 and were ranked No. 14. Georgia Tech, which BYU plays on Sept. 21, was 8-5 and No. 24 at season”s end.
The Cougars also face tough conference games at Colorado State and Utah. The Rams and Utes are both picked to win the MWC title ahead of BYU in several polls.
On top of that, the two guys most credited with last year”s success, Doman and Staley, are gone to the NFL.
Though the road will be harder than last year, the news is far from bad for Crowton and Co.
Wide receiver Reno Mahe was first team All-MWC last year, as was cornerback Jernaro Gilford. It was Gilford who sealed the 24-21 BYU win over Utah with a fourth-quarter interception. And it was Mahe and his 181 receiving yards and 69 rushing yards that kept BYU going at all during the Hawaii game.
Bret Engemann, who is coming back to play after an injury, will probably start at quarterback. He was impressive in BYU”s comeback victory at Virginia in 2000, where he went 34 of 41 passing for 447 yards.
Marcus Whalen, who played in nine games at running back for the Cougars in 2000, will try to pick up where Staley left off.
With those guys back and many others, anything looks possible.
So, do I think BYU really was as good as its billing last year?
Nah. Probably not.
But please prove me wrong this year guys.