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BYU is getting a good look at the hard road ahead

Nobody said move to a Power Five league would be easy for BYU. So what needs to happen for Cougars to become competitive?

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West Virginia’s Traylon Ray, top, runs over BYU players during Mountaineers’ victory on Saturday, Nov. 4, 2023, in Morgantown.

West Virginia’s Traylon Ray, top, runs over BYU players during the Mountaineers’ victory on Saturday, Nov. 4, 2023, in Morgantown.

Chris Jackson, Associated Press

If we have learned anything over the course of BYU’s first six Big 12 conference games, it is this — the gulf between the haves and have-nots is wider than expected. This has nothing to do with money, history, or the size of the fan base, but it has everything to do with recruiting and performance.

BYU Iowa State TV

Cougars on the air

Iowa State (4-2, 5-4)
at BYU (2-4, 5-4)
Saturday, 8:15 p.m. MST
LaVell Edwards Stadium
Radio: 102.7 FM/1160 AM

During the Cougars’ four road defeats at Kansas, TCU, Texas and West Virginia, they have come face to face with teams who have better and deeper rosters. In addition, they are contending against football programs who have been seasoned for years at this level of football. As a result, BYU has been outscored by a combined 154-51.

The outcomes don’t reflect a lack of effort or desire; the Cougars really are trying. They want to win. The lopsided scores are the byproduct of playing better teams and a building process that is impossible to skip.

Teams with more infrastructure expose teams who are just trying to get by until reinforcements arrive. This is why the Cougars can look like they can’t do anything right. On Saturday at West Virginia, they couldn’t run, they couldn’t throw, they couldn’t block and they couldn’t tackle. As a result, they couldn’t compete.

Offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick and defensive coordinator Jay Hill know how to call plays, but when faced with an opponent who is man-for-man and pound-for-pound performing at a higher level and with a deeper bench, the margin for success is minimal and the frustration is excessive.

The level of difficulty was also present in BYU’s two home victories against fellow Big 12 newcomer Cincinnati and longtime conference resident Texas Tech, who played a third-string freshman quarterback. At this level of the game, nothing is easy.

There is a reason why Cincinnati, Houston and UCF, the other three Big 12 newcomers, are a combined 3-15 against conference foes. They too had loftier expectations back in September, but all four, including BYU, have been shown the ropes by being knocked up against them. On Saturday, West Virginia sent the Cougars crashing to the canvas.

Winning consistently at this level of football requires more than a mindset, it demands talent and that requires time to build a roster. It also warrants a patient fan base in a society that abhors waiting for anything. There is a lot of losing during the building against opponents who are doing the same thing but are years up ahead.

Colorado coach Deion Sanders attempted a quick fix last summer by gutting his roster and rebuilding it in the transfer portal. He constructed a cotton candy lineup. Initially, he looked like a genius, but once the heat came in the form of better competition, his Buffaloes withered, and they currently have a 1-5 record in the Pac-12.

When asked what needed to be done to better protect his quarterback and help his dysfunctional running game, Sanders responded, “The big picture, you go get new linemen. That’s the picture, and I’ma paint it perfectly.”

It might sound cold and ruthless, especially to his current players and their families, but in today’s game Sanders isn’t wrong and his followers eat it up. Colorado, like everybody else, wants to win right now. The Buffaloes join the Big 12 next year with Arizona, Arizona State and Utah.

Try as many will, there is no guaranteed quick fix at this level of college football. The transfer portal can provide pinpointed relief, but recruiting time and player development are the ingredients to building depth. To their credit, BYU, Houston, Cincinnati and UCF didn’t start Big 12 play from scratch, but when it comes to building the rosters they will need to compete, they have barely scratched the surface.

The magic of college football is that any team can rise up on any given Saturday to beat anyone else. That is why BYU has a puncher’s chance to upset Iowa State on Saturday (8:15 p.m. MST, ESPN) and become bowl eligible.

No matter the 2-4 record, Jake Retzlaff’s spunk and mobility at quarterback can motivate the offense to perform better. The defense has shown at times that it is very capable of holding down an opponent. LaVell Edwards Stadium is a tough place to play, and night games have shined brightly for BYU in 20 of its last 22 games.

West Virginia has a 10-year head start on BYU in figuring out how to win in the Big 12 and they are still seeking their first conference championship. The media mistakenly voted them last in the preseason poll. Had it not been for a Hail Mary pass by Houston, the Mountaineers would be tied for first place with Texas and Oklahoma State.

The Cougars might need to adjust their sights. BYU can learn more about how to elevate its program from West Virginia than they can from the lofty Longhorns or Sooners. West Virginia is climbing up from the bottom and they are leaving behind breadcrumbs for the Cougars to follow.

If BYU has learned anything from the first six Big 12 games in program history, it’s that the gulf between the haves and have-nots is wider than expected and the best way to close it is by closing the deal with future recruits. Until the Cougrs do, the view from the bottom looking up at teams like TCU, Kansas and West Virginia are certain to continue.

Dave McCann is a contributor to the Deseret News and is the studio host for “BYU Sports Nation Game Day,” “The Post Game Show,” “After Further Review,” and play-by-play announcer for BYUtv. He is also co-host of “Y’s Guys” at ysguys.com.