BYU Football: Cougars could learn from Utes

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The BYU football program could learn a thing or two from their rivals up north.

Look, I hate the Utes more than most. I’ve even been called a “10%er” (the newest Twitter term for fans who irrationally and immaturely hate their rival). But after watching Utah battle the Ducks the other night on ESPN, I was reminded about the one thing that Utah has had since Urban Meyer and that BYU has lacked for decades.

An underdog mentality.

When the stakes are high–especially when they are playing ranked teams, big named programs, and BYU–the guys in red show up. They play like their lives depend on winning that game, and they perform like they deserve to be in the national conversation. As a result, Utah has won two BCS games by wide margins and has pulled off some major upsets as a PAC-12 member.

And they do it all with a swagger that says, “I told you so.” They always have a chip on their shoulder.

This mentality has been common–nay, necessary–to all would-be BCS busters. Boise State has made a living upsetting major programs by playing like they’ve been disrespected. Before the Broncos, Fresno State stole the college football world’s heart with its “anybody, anytime, any place” mantra. Even within the Power 5 conferences, dozens of teams not named Alabama, Oklahoma, and USC have had to feed off of their underdog status to pull off upsets. It gives teams the extra push they need to overcome their athletic and financial disadvantages.

BYU’s swagger , however, always seems to come from a false sense of security rather than having something to prove. Even when playing major programs like Notre Dame and Wisconsin, the Cougars show up like they’ve been at the big boys’ table all along. Instead of playing with the heart and passion of a team slighted by the college football establishment–which they are–BYU treats big games like, well, any other game. Consequently, BYU football has struggled mightily against ranked opponents and Power 5 teams in general. I won’t even mention their abysmal record against Utah the last decade.

Before you bring out the “Fire Bronco” pitchforks, understand that BYU’s entitlement syndrome predates Bronco’s arrival. Because of its rich athletic history, BYU players and fans alike have never really felt like outsiders. I, for example, grew up at the tail end of the Steve Young and Jim McMahon glory years, with a Heisman trophy and national championship not too far in the past. My guess is that a lot of BYU players are recruited with a heavy dose of this BYU lore, and it undoubtedly plays into BYU’s “we belong” attitude.

What’s more, this attitude doesn’t seem to be unique to football. I’ve noticed the same entitlement mentality in the basketball program as well. In last season’s infamous WCC losses to Loyola Marymount, Pepperdine, and Portland–not to mention their embarrassment at the hands of the Utes–BYU played lackadaisically, as if they can just flip a switch at any time and finish out their inferior opponents. And fans assume that their team will win the conference championship every year, even though it’s been over a decade since the Cougars have brought home the hardware.

Both in basketball and football, BYU has become famous for racking up a lot of wins against sub-par opposition, and losing a ton of games–often by close margins–to ranked teams and major programs. Utah, on the other hand, seems to find a way to beat Stanford and USC, and yet come up short against the likes of Washington State. These two programs are opposites in nearly every respect.

I submit that to get over the hump, BYU needs to take a page out of Utah’s book and learn to take the underdog’s role instead of acting like they belong. They need to take offense when the SEC and ACC decline to count BYU as a quality opponent and get angry when a single loss knocks them out of the Top 25. They need to realize that Steve Young, Jim McMahon, and Danny Ainge are all retired, and that it’s been 30 long years since BYU has run the table in football. In short, they need to view themselves more like Boise State and less like Notre Dame.

Recruiting will always be difficult at BYU, so they will always need every boost they can get. As Bronco and Jonny Harline remind us, execution is always the most important thing when it comes to beating a superior opponent. But an underdog mentality is the element BYU really needs to make it to the next level.

That’s one thing BYU can learn from Utah. Scratch that. It’s the only thing.

About the author

Andy Kartchner

I have a Ph.D. in sports analytics. No I don't. But I do have a law degree. And if there's one thing I learned in law school, it's how to write about sports.

I am Big Bro. My brother, Aaron (a.k.a. Little Bro), and I make up the Sports Bros, your one-stop shop for everything BYU sports.

  • Realistic Optimist

    Like, Andy Kartchner, I too have a Ph.D. in sports analytics. No I don’t, but I too have a law degree. No I don’t have that either. What I do have, is complete agreement with everything he said in his article. I go a step further.

    I remember when we complained that the Holiday Bowl was not good enough for us. We deserved better. Now we can’t get in.

    I remember when the Las Vegas Bowl was not good enough for us. The Bowl said they were even willing to change the name of the Bowl to the BYU Bowl. But no, we deserved better. But now, we can’t get in.

    I remember that we thought of ourselves as the Notre Dame of the West, now they cancell games on us.

    I remember that we brag that we have 10 bowl games in the past 10 years and all with winning seasons. I am reminded that we have winning seasons and we have bowl games because we program our seasons for those bowl games and winning seasons to come automatically.

    Case in point: If we lose to UNLV and to Cal, we can still have our winning season and our bowl game by playing division 2 Savannah State.
    I have a Ph.D. in sports analytics.

  • tradehead

    Agree, agree and agree! Did I say agree?

  • Ironweed

    Wow! A very good article. Spot on! It is so frustrating to watch BYU just go through the motions with no sense of urgency. I’ve seen it so many times!

  • Vegas Fan

    Finally someone gets it! I think you are dead on Andy. I’m a huge BYU fan, but I have felt for years now that BYU is in denial about how good they are–goes for players and fans, maybe even coaches. The whole football program seems to be more focused on the world’s perception of itself rather than on making things happen on the football field. Too much talking and too little performance…complete opposite of Utah, I’m afraid to say. Utah has more class than BYU, and I blame Mendenhall, mainly. A team’s concept of itself comes from the head coach, and BYU seems to have identity issues…and we need tougher players, especially mental toughness, which again comes from the coaches. Something’s gotta change.

  • GreekSophistry

    I actually do have a PhD and I’m in agreement. We got bored with the Holiday Bowl. Oh no! The Holiday Bowl again? Most of which games we lost. I went to Washington, where we had great coaches and three Rose Bowls in the early ’60s. Now the Huskies have lost 11 in a row to the Ducks and haven’t seen a Rose Bowl in years.

    BYU has been arrogant, as the Huskies were. The Huskies are not arrogant anymore, and they’re playing hard but once you get into that state it’s harder to recruit. I agree about the Utes “bringing it” but only on defense. This is a Whittingham thing. Get really good defenses, and you have a chance every game. Witness the great BYU defenses of the last several years.

    So while I agree that attitude is huge in sports, you also need a good QB. And BYU has struggled in that area for years. With the injuries we’re seeing everywhere, I’m thinking that teams need to protect the QB no matter what. So I predict that the read option will go the way of the wishbone. You don’t see Oregon using their QB as a running back. His runs are mostly escapes. As it should be.

  • azgguy

    I completely agree! That attitude breeds some nastiness and helps you stay hungry.
    I don’t have a PhD in sports analytics, but I do have a master’s in engineering with a calculator, pocket protector, and slide ruler to prove it!

  • judge224

    Agree… I am sure a big reason the Pac10 took Utah was because their “what have you done lately” resume looked really good. TCU specifically put BYU helmets / jerseys on their hitting dummies to remind them of the standard they wanted to reach and look where they are at (nice little RoseBowl win a few years back). It’s time BYU did the same. BYU needs to get off its pedestal and realize they are the slighted, ignored, shunned wimpy kid on the playground and the only way they are going to get respect is by beating up the big boys. Bronco’s politicking is only going to make us look like whiners… I am sure if we were kicking everyone to the curb, then there would be overtures from the big conferences. It’s not just about winning, its about beating the teams that matter. Luckily Texas has sucked the past two seasons, or no one would have even been talking about BYU.

  • Andrew Kartchner

    Thanks for all your comments. To be clear, I do not think Bronco is to blame for this attitude. He certainly doesn’t help it, but, like I said in the article, this goes beyond his tenure and even beyond his sport. It’s something everyone connected to BYU experiences, fans included. I’m not sure how to shake it, but it’s important.

  • Collin Holmberg

    Great articles! It’s true that Memphis did get robbed of a much deserved celebration. I think it will be a pretty strong lesson to those players that decided to let their emotions get out of control on Memphis that such actions really soured what should have been a very special moment for everyone on their team. Sadly it took away as well from the majority of their teammates that didn’t let their emotions get the best of them and for the huge milestone their program as a whole had just achieved. BYU players like Nicau will learn a pretty hard lesson as well in my opinion. Seeing your ugliest self played over and over again on TV, internet, etc, knowing a national audience now has that ugliest self memory of you implanted in their brains, will probably weigh pretty heavy at times….if not all the time. Hopefully he can get better perspective of why doing what he did crosses a line that just shouldn’t be crossed. I can only imagine how high the emotion and tensions must have been at the end of that 2OT rollercoaster, back and forth game. Being on the losing side of such a contest hurts enough, then (you could argue) seeing the other team rush to your sideline to celebrate in front of your team right when the realization starts sinking in that a glorious win will forever be replaced by a crushing loss (at least until there are chances to play/win more games), that would be tough to handle. I don’t know that my emotions have ever been pushed to such limits myself. Then to see a fight break out and to see players you’ve gone through so much with that are now on the ground literally getting beat up by the team that just beat you, that obviously would get the best of many in that situation. But Memphis players were feeling the same emotions when they saw their fellow players in danger amidst a brawl.