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BYU’S BEST: ’84 OR ’96?


At last, the college football season, which began some time during the Carter Administration, has come to an end, and that means it's time to turn our attention to other more important matters. Time to move on with the rest of our lives. Time to get off the couch and stop watching football.

It's time to TALK football.Why do you think the off-season was invented? It's a time to ponder life's deeper mysteries, such as the Alliance bowl system, or Beano Cook, or Joe Tiller's decision to take an intentional safety (was that certifiably nuts, or what?).

But first things first. We begin with a heated debate about the surprising BYU football team, which, to review, won the Western Athletic Conference and the Cotton Bowl, finished fifth in the national rankings and won 14 of 15 games.

Some consider this the finest team BYU has ever assembled. The '96 Cougars are frequently compared against the standard with which all BYU teams will be measured - the 1984 national championship team, the only squad with a better record (13-0) and higher ranking. There are similarities.

- "They both came from nowhere," says head coach LaVell Edwards. Neither team was included in the national rankings before the season began. That's because both teams had suffered big graduation losses, but in both cases a number of new starters developed quickly - in '84, it was cornerback Mark Allen, safety Steve Haymond, running back Kelly Smith, tight end David Mills and quarterback Robbie Bosco; in '96, it was cornerback Omarr Morgan, running backs Dustin Johnson, Ronney Jenkins, Brian McKenzie, and offensive linemen John Tait, Eric Bateman and Matt Cox.

"All of them stepped in and played well," says running back coach Lance Reynolds.

- Both teams opened the season in remarkably similar fashion, rallying to beat a big-name, nationally ranked opponent with a long, late touchdown pass.

In 1984, BYU opened the season against No. 3-ranked Pitt, which had national-title ambitions, and won on a 50-yard touchdown pass with 97 seconds left.

In 1996, BYU opened its season against No. 12 Texas A&M, another team with national title ambitions, and won on a 46-yard touchdown pass with 63 seconds left.

Curiously, both Pitt and Texas A&M reacted similarly. After the game, their coaches punished them with scrimmages and difficult practices, but it didn't help. Both teams went into a season-long funk.

"Losing to BYU demoralized them," says Reynolds. "They were thinking national title, then they lose to BYU and it pops their bubble." The game had the opposite effect on BYU. "Those games got us going," Reynolds says.

- "Both teams were very lucky with injuries," says Edwards. The '84 Cougars didn't lose a single starter to an injury. The '96 Cougars didn't lose anyone to an injury until late in the season, when they lost one starter in each of the last three games.

- Both teams had a knack for winning close games. The '84 team won five games by a TD or less, four of them in the final minutes; the '96 team won four games by a field goal or less, scoring in the final minute in three of them to win or force overtime. Both teams won bowl games with an 11th-hour touchdown pass.

There is one big difference between the teams. The '84 Cougars managed to survive their bad days to win every game; the '96 Cougars lost one game, 29-17 to Washington in the third week of the season.

"It's hard to compare," says Bosco, who quarterbacked the '84 team and is now a BYU assistant coach. "We had a lot of guys drafted (from the '84 team), and a lot of them are still playing. There was a lot of great talent on that team. There are guys on this team who will have opportunities to play in the NFL, too."

The '84 team included future NFL players Bosco, Jim Herrmann, Leon White, Kurt Gouveia, Glen Kozlowski, Mark Bellini, Kyle Morrell, Lee Johnson, Vai Sikahema, Trevor Matich and Louis Wong. It's uncertain how many top NFL prospects are on the '96 team, although tight ends Itula Mili and Chad Lewis clearly are two of them.

The '96 Cougars had a better secondary than the '84 team. They have, many longtime observers believe, the best pair of cornerbacks in the history of the school in Tim McTyer and Omarr Morgan. Those are critical positions and chronic sore spots over the years for BYU.

On the other hand, the front seven of the '84 team - consider Herrmann, Gouveia, White (the latter two were Super Bowl starters) - are probably the best the school has ever assembled. The '84 defense allowed an average of just 14.1 points per game.

So which is the best BYU team ever, '84 or '96? Maybe neither. Don't forget the 1983 team. Or the '80 and '79 teams.

The '83 team fell four points shy of a 12-0 record, losing its season opener 40-36 to Baylor in the late going. That team, led by Steve Young and Gordon Hudson, averaged a staggering 584 yards per game - an NCAA record.

"Defensively, the '84 team was a little better, but offensively that '83 team was something else," says Reynolds.

The '80 team, led by Jim McMahon, who is still my choice for Best BYU Quarterback Ever (college performances only), also missed a 13-0 season by losing its opener to New Mexico by the same four points, 25-21.

And then there is the Marc Wilson-led team of '79, which came within one point of a 12-0 season, missing a last-second, chip-shot field goal in the Holiday Bowl to fall to Indiana 38-37.

The '96 team is the first BYU team in a dozen years to produce the kind of high-powered offense (40.8 per game) and stingy defense (allowing 18 points per game) that was almost routine for BYU's teams from '79 to '85.

"There are similarities between this team and the '84 team," says Bosco. "The first one I see is that both teams got down to business. They were very focused. There was not a lot of complaining. Whether you got them up at 6:30 or 9:30, they were ready to go and there was no grumbling. It really is unusual. You're always going to have guys who complain."

Reynolds agrees. "Every team is like having a kid," he says, "and every one of them is different. Some grow up snotty and some are competitive and obedient. This one is an obedient, hard-working, non-complaining team, like the '84 team.

"Both teams benefited from having leaders who are strong and have the respect of the other real players, like (Shay) Muirbrook, (Chad) Lewis, McTyer and (Steve) Sarkisian. They had a real agenda on how you should act on and off the field. For example, they talked about how some of our past teams talked too much; they wanted everyone to keep his mouth shut and just play."

So enough talk. The team of '96, undoubtedly one of the top three or four teams ever to play for BYU, will be a team to be remembered and savored for years to come.