PROVO — In BYU’s 90-year football history, the Cougars have opened a season 4-0 just eight times.
This is one of those years. No. 20 BYU (4-0) has a bye before hosting Utah State on Oct. 3.
“It’s nice to have a strong start to the season,” said coach Bronco Mendenhall. “Timing of the bye week I think is good. It could be argued that we have momentum now, which we do, but we also have things to control in terms of our team’s readiness, and areas to fix, get a little bit healthier, and relaunch the next phase of our season. I like where we are.”
While the Cougars made a big splash by routing perennial power Texas in the second game of the season, BYU's weaknesses were exposed in wins over Houston and Virginia.
“We’re going to practice hard this week. It’s not letting off the gas pedal at all,” said safety Craig Bills. “We’re going to keep going hard and have some intense practices where we can clean some stuff up.”
Bills knows about winning streaks — his Timpview High team won 36 in a row. How do players avoid getting caught up in the frenzy of a national ranking and an undefeated season?
“With all the talk, it will be there. It’s not like we’re not going to hear it. It’s just a matter of not letting that go to your head and making it the center of your thoughts,” Bills said. “The rankings don’t mean anything until the end of the season. It’s good for getting our name out there. But if we’re thinking about that more than anything, then we’re bound to mess up somewhere.”
After playing USU, BYU will travel to Central Florida, host Nevada, visit Boise State and Middle Tennessee, entertain UNLV and Savannah State and close the regular season at California.
Tight end Devin Mahina said his team is motivated.
“We’re the underdogs most of the time, so we have to stay hungry,” he said. “We have a lot to prove this year, so we have to keep working hard.”
History shows how difficult it is to maintain a perfect season, as injuries, bad luck, challenging opponents, upsets, and the mounting pressure to win can all play factors.
The first time BYU won its first four games was 35 years ago, in 1979, highlighted by a season-opening win over nationally ranked Texas A&M. The Cougars finished the regular season 11-0 before falling to the coach Lee Corso-led Indiana squad in the Holiday Bowl, 38-37. BYU missed the potential game-winning field goal with 11 seconds remaining.
Two years later, BYU won its first five games before being upset at home by UNLV. The Cougars ended up 11-2.
Everybody knows about what happened in 1984, which is BYU’s only perfect season (13-0). The Cougars were crowned national champions.
In 1990, quarterback Ty Detmer led BYU to an upset over No. 1 Miami, the defending national champion. But Oregon spoiled the Cougars’ 4-0 record with a 32-16 victory in Eugene, Oregon. Detmer ended up winning the Heisman Trophy, but BYU finished 10-3.
The Cougars’ oddest 4-0 start came in 1993, when they beat New Mexico, Hawaii, Colorado State and Air Force before getting blasted, 68-14, at UCLA in the fifth game of the season. BYU ended up with a 6-6 record.
Gary Crowton took over for legendary coach LaVell Edwards in 2001 and the Cougars won their first 12 games. Then they lost Doak Walker Award-winning running back Luke Staley to an injury and dropped their final two contests of the season against Hawaii and Louisville.
In 2008, BYU was coming off back-to-back 11-2 seasons, and had a bevy of talented players returning. Many predicted a BCS-busting season for the Cougars, whose team slogan was “Quest for Perfection.” BYU won its first six games before suffering a blowout loss at TCU. The Cougars finished 10-3.
Which brings us to 2014.
One of the oldest cliches in sports is “taking one game at a time.” That’s the approach this year's Cougars say they’re following, however.
“Our motto this year has been to ‘live in the moment,’” said Mahina. “We’re taking each step at a time, worrying about what’s in front of us and not trying to get too far ahead.”
Then, when asked moments later what he’s looking forward to the rest of the season, Mahina said, “The opportunity to go undefeated. I know (I) shouldn’t be thinking about that. But having the possibility to go undefeated is pretty awesome.”
BYU has been the media darling of college football this season, with the Cougars receiving plenty of national attention. Pundits are evaluating whether BYU can go undefeated, play in a major bowl game, or break into the new four-team playoff. They're debating the merits of quarterback Taysom Hill as a Heisman Trophy candidate.
Linebacker Jherremya Leuta-Douyere said he and his teammates are trying not to think about those things.
“We try to stay in the present. You don’t ever want to believe the hype because that will hurt you if you get too big-headed. As a team, we’re focusing on the moment and not getting caught up in what everyone is saying.”
Over the years, Mendenhall has said his team would need an undefeated season to set up an opportunity to play on college football’s biggest stage. With a junior quarterback in Hill, that opportunity could be presenting itself.
But Mendenhall is trying to live in the moment.
“Hopefuly that it could happen. Still, it’s 4-0, it’s not 10-0 yet or 11-0,” he said. “It’s still basically a one-game play-in week by week for us in the current system. Who knows? If there is a team this year that’s out of the Power 5 that wins them all, I don’t know what will happen. It would be fun to see. I would like to be that team. Right now, it’s bye week, then Utah State. That’s enough.”