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Did BYU take its national ranking for granted?

For a program starved for national recognition after being there in the ’80s and ’90s, BYU can’t afford to let it slip away with lackluster performances witnessed in narrow victory over UTSA

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BYU coach Kalani Sitake works the sideline during the game against the UTSA Roadrunners at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Saturday, Oct. 10, 2020. The Cougars escaped with a narrow win over the 34-point underdogs.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

PROVO — So, BYU climbed in the college football polls, even after a lackluster performance.

That is news Blue and White fans should be giddy about.

That is the state of 2020 when Big Ten and Pac-12 teams have yet to play and the Cougars continue to streak at 4-0, No. 13 in the coaches poll and No. 14 by The Associated Press.

That is also a good time for Kalani Sitake and his players to think for a moment and appreciate the experience of being a ranked football team, knocking on the door of a top-10 ranking.

And that’s why you don’t play sloppy like you did Saturday against UTSA, a five-touchdown underdog.

BYU was lucky to be able to learn something in its narrow victory.

And that’s exactly why we didn’t see a lot of dancing on the sideline last week. Either consciously or subconsciously, the truth was there. 

On Monday, national pundit for The Athletic, Stewart Mandel, wrote, “Sorry I got ahead of myself on BYU, everybody. Let’s pump the brakes on the undefeated talk for a bit after Zach Wilson and the Cougars sleepwalked to a 27-20 win against 34.5-point underdog UTSA.”

Mandel had been on BYU’s train for a month, but dropped them several spots this week.

Here are three things for the Cougars to contemplate in preparing for a road game at Houston this Friday:

First, college football polls are not scientific, but opinions from sports desk jockeys and overworked coaches tasked with the job of deciding who is good and who is not. Some voters may have just woken up from a late game night or were busy preparing for travel when they meet a vote deadline. Some do a lot of research, others may occasionally be lazy and just mail it in. Voters reflect our society, they’re not any different nor more perfect. In reality, it’s not accurate nor absolute, but it is what we have to attach importance to concerning wins and losses. It creates a pecking order, a reference point.

Second, we’ve made polls matter as a society. And because they matter, when you are ranked, you don’t wade through a ranking with a crown of pride and take it for granted.  And if you are BYU, and you’d experienced a No. 1 ranking a very long time ago — and have not been so fortunate to even be ranked regularly as of late — you should play like it. Protect it. Don’t disrespect a ranking because the pressure on ranked teams increases exponentially every week. You wear a target.

Third, fame is fleeting. Just look at defending national champion LSU, which dropped out of the rankings this week. Some Utah fans, whose team has yet to play by no fault of its own, are mocking your ranking, saying you don’t belong. You guys  practically proved them right in a game Saturday filled with penalties, careless ballhandling, suspect protection and coverages unseen through the first three games. That’s on coaches and players not playing at the same level.

After Saturday’s game, there was plenty of talk that, indeed, BYU’s practice and preparation leading up to the game was normal and up to snuff. Outsiders don’t have any way to confirm that due to restrictions, but the level of play on the field indicated that was not the case. The level of play, discipline and execution displayed against Navy, Troy and Louisiana Tech were far above what BYU trotted out Saturday.

Jeff Sagarin’s USA Today rankings are an impassioned computer look at strength of schedule and other matrix data. He has BYU ranked No. 10.

That is quite remarkable. It is a computer poll that also includes Pac-12 and Big Ten teams who have yet to play a game.

It’s even more remarkable that BYU climbed in the rankings after clearly not being as focused as expected in a home game.

And that’s why, for good or bad, polls are part of our national discussion. They are a debate point, a starting spot to affirm or disagree or argue a case of how good a team really is.

This great game of football is a contest of emotion. It’s also a game where momentum rules, both within games and in between games. Sometimes a team is just worn down either physically or emotionally, and hiccups occur. That’s why this game is so fun to watch because anything can happen on any given week.

It is almost impossible for teams to play at an optimal level 10 or 12 times a year.

It is a game that expects every team to play better and better each week, although injuries,  scouting reports and preparation by foes are working against that momentum every single day. 

Yet, the game demands it through the ebbs and flow.

In a win over a feisty UTSA team, the Cougars got away with an ebb. Against Houston they’ll need a flow. Houston will be the best team the Cougars have faced this season.

That’s what makes this week so interesting.

Does BYU deserve the ranking?