On rankings and relevance: Looking back at BYU football’s origins in the AP Poll
September was good to BYU football.
There was the season-opening “royal rush” in Las Vegas, the long-awaited Big 12 invite, the streak-snapping, field-storming win over Utah and the viral, game-saving punch fumble from running back Tyler Allgeier.
Along the way, the Cougars raced out to a 5-0 start on the 2021 season and climbed to No. 10 in the AP Top 25. In fact, BYU has now been ranked in 18 of the last 20 AP Top 25 Polls.
Is this recent relevance completely new to BYU football?
Is it limited to days of quarterback Zach Wilson slinging 33 touchdowns and head coach Kalani Sitake leading the Cougar sideline in a victorious dance-off?
Nope. BYU’s recent presence in the AP Top 25 is but a new chapter in a lengthy volume of success in the national spotlight.
BYU and the AP Poll
The Associated Press Poll debuted with the 1936 college football season. After decades of ranking 20 teams, the poll expanded to become the AP Top 25 in 1989.
Over the course of the poll’s 85-year history, BYU has been ranked 260 times. This includes 58 weeks in the top 10 and four weeks at No. 1. The Cougars are tied with future Big 12 foe Oklahoma State for 35th all-time in Top 25 appearances.
BYU has spent more weeks nationally ranked than rivals Boise State (165), Utah (141) and Utah State (12). The all-time leaders for AP Poll appearances include Ohio State, Michigan, Oklahoma, Notre Dame and Alabama. The Buckeyes lead all of college football with 939 weeks ranked.
1983, 1984, 1996 – BYU fans know these historic seasons inside and out. To gain a better appreciation of the team’s Top 25 tradition, one must crank the clock back a little farther.
1974: “We started to believe we could win”
Despite 52 years of playing football, the pre-LaVell Edwards Cougars had rarely played a ranked team, much less sniffed a national ranking.
Then came the 1974 season.
In what proved to be a benchmark of success for the program, the Cougars first entered the rankings at No. 20 on Nov. 25, 1974. To complement its national ranking, BYU received its first post-season bowl berth with a matchup against Oklahoma State at the Fiesta Bowl in Tempe, Arizona.
While BYU dropped from the rankings following a 16-6 setback to the Cowboys in the Fiesta Bowl, the 1974 season is still remembered as the one where the program turned the corner.
It didn’t look that way from the start, however.
The Cougars began the season with a dismal 0-3-1 record after losses to Hawaii, Utah State, Iowa State and a bizarre tie with Colorado State.
Before the program turned the corner, the players had to.The following quotes come from the book “What it means to be a Cougar” by BYU athletic communications manager Duff Tittle, where several players recounted experiences on iconic BYU football teams. Quarterback Gary Sheide remembers a game-changing team meeting following the tie in Fort Collins.
“The captains got up and spoke,” Sheide said. “Everyone committed to give his best effort. The whole team demeanor changed. We were rooting for each other on the sidelines.”
With a new team camaraderie in effect, the Cougars fired off seven straight wins to finish the regular season at 7-4-1 and arrive in the national rankings. WAC powers Arizona and Arizona State, both nationally ranked, stood between BYU and a Top 20 spot.
“It was probably my best moment as a Cougar,” Sheide said of BYU’s matchup with No. 16 Arizona. “They were favored to beat us, and we came out and just dominated them.”
BYU quickly erased an early 7-0 Arizona lead with a 28-0 run to put the Wildcats away by halftime. The Cougars sealed the 37-13 victory in the fourth quarter as Sheide hit wide receiver John Betham for his fifth touchdown pass of the day.
LaVell Edwards, Sheide and the Cougars had just recorded the program’s first-ever win over a nationally-ranked team.
Linebacker Larry Carr remembers the toppling of Arizona in Tucson as a turning point for the team.
“We started to believe we could win,” Carr said.
Belief led to another win when, two weeks later, BYU earned its first-ever home victory over a ranked team when it stunned No. 16 Arizona State 21-18 at Cougar Stadium.
1977: “By the time we left…football was a big deal in Provo.”
While being ranked during the college football season is nice, finishing the season ranked is even better. BYU accomplished this for the first time in 1977 when the team was listed No. 20 in the final AP Poll.
Oh, and BYU needed two quarterbacks to get there. Sound familiar?
Senior quarterback Gifford Nielsen led the NCAA in touchdown passes during the 1976 season and appeared to be on track for another record-setting season in 1977 when he led the Cougars to a 3-0 start. During those three games, BYU outscored its opponents 158-25 behind Nielsen’s 912 passing yards and 13 touchdowns to zero interceptions.
Nielsen sustained a season-ending injury in a 24-19 loss at Oregon State. Enter BYU’s first great Wilson under-center; future College Football Hall of Famer Marc Wilson.
The sophomore quarterback picked up where Nielsen left off, passing for 2,418 yards and 24 touchdowns while leading the Cougars to a 6-1 record and eight weeks in the Top 20.
Wilson set records of his own in 1977. The former backup set a school record in his first start at BYU with seven touchdown passes in a 63-17 rout of Colorado State. Though tied twice, Wilson’s record still stands in Provo. Weeks later, Wilson threw for an NCAA single-game record 571 yards in a 38-8 win over Utah.
Wilson wasn’t alone in his contributions to the nationally ranked 1977 team. Todd Christensen, John VanDerWouden, Mike Chronister and Tod Thompson each recorded over 600 yards receiving on the season and the Cougar defense held opponents to a mere 15 points per game.
Christensen, a senior fullback in 1977, was a freshman on the 1974 Fiesta Bowl team and remembered the change he saw in the program during his career.
“By the time we left in 1977, football was a big deal in Provo,” Christensen said. “Better recruiting, better facilities, expansion of the stadium, all of those things that now say Brigham Young football –- they didn’t exist when we started.”
Built for more
Finishing ranked in 1977 proved to be but a glimpse of success to come for BYU football. During the ensuing ten seasons, the Cougars went 103-25 and finished ranked six times. This stretch also included marquee wins over No. 14 Texas A&M, No. 19 SMU, No. 3 Pittsburgh and No. 4 Air Force.
BYU maintained a regular presence in the national rankings during the early 1990s with a minimum of five weeks in the Top 25 between 1989 and 1994. After a brief absence in 1995, the Cougars won what was then an NCAA record 14 games in 1996 and finished with their second-best ranking ever at No. 5.
BYU again appeared in the AP Top 10 in 2001, 2008, 2009 and most recently, during the 2020 season. The Cougars’ No. 11 finish in 2020 was the program’s fourth-best all-time.
With spotlight Power 5 games dotting the remainder of the 2021 and much of the 2022 schedule and a future in the Big 12, there’s plenty of opportunities for BYU football to build on the tradition of national ranking and relevance.