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.