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BYU football: Boise State game is a big one, but there have been others

While the eyes of the Mountain West and beyond will be glued to Friday’s No. 9 BYU vs. No. 21 Boise State game, let’s not forgot other big games the Cougars have played in.

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BYU coach LeVell Edwards smiles after his team intercepts a Kansas State pass late in the fourth quarter to seal their 19-15 win at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas, Jan. 1, 1997.

AP Photo/Tim Sharp

You waited for it and now you’ve got it: BYU is finally playing a worthy opponent after a seven-week warmup act. On Friday night, the No. 9 Cougars, unbeaten in seven games, will play No. 21 Boise State, unbeaten in two games, in the game everyone has eagerly awaited.

Head coach Kalani Sitake says that in previous weeks the Cougars never looked past their opponents to this game — but the rest of us did. 

For BYU, it’s a case of good news and bad news. The good news: The game will finally answer the question many in college football are asking: Is BYU for real?

The bad news: It’s Boise State.

The Broncos became a force in college football about 25 years ago and began playing BYU in 2003. “ … we consider them a rival for us,” Sitake said this week. The results of the rivalry have been similar to the team’s other rivalry. Other than Utah, there is no team that causes BYU more trouble. The Broncos have won seven of their 10 meetings with the Cougars, including three of the last four. Half of the games have been decided by five or fewer points.

The last time BYU traveled to Boise was 2018 and the Cougars were 4-4 and starting a freshman quarterback named Zach Wilson. They lost 21-16 after the Cougars drove toward goal line in the closing minutes. With the ball at the BSU five-yard line, the Cougars ran five plays and didn’t get closer than the 2. On the final play Wilson took a sack rather than throw the ball out of bounds.

Much has changed since then. Wilson, who missed the final four games of the 2019 season with an injury, has transformed himself into a Heisman candidate. The Cougars, who were 27-25 during Sitake’s first four seasons, have transformed themselves from a struggling program to a nationally ranked, unbeaten team, while playing a pandemic-revamped schedule that was patched up with weak opponents.

So it’s BYU vs. Boise State on the blue carpet in Boise. If the Cougars win, they will be one big step closer to pulling off an unbeaten season. They face an undermanned North Alabama team in two weeks, followed by a three-week break before they play a good San Diego State team in Provo to end the regular season.

There’s been some discussion in the media about Friday’s game being among the biggest BYU has ever played. It’s a big game, but the Cougars have been in bigger games on many occasions. It is fair to say this is their biggest game in 19 years. On several occasions, they have been in a remarkably similar position in previous seasons. This marks the fourth time they have been ranked No. 9 and riding a long winning streak heading into a big game.

The Cougars were No. 9 and winners of 12 straight when they played Hawaii in the regular-season finale in 2001. And lost.

The Cougars were ranked No. 5 and riding a 12-game winning streak when they met 14th-ranked Kansas State in the 1997 Cotton Bowl. And won. 

The Cougars were ranked No. 1 in the nation, riding a 12-game winning streak, when they played Michigan in the 1984 Holiday Bowl with a national championship on the line. And won.

They were ranked No. 9 and riding an 11-game winning streak when they played Missouri in the 1983 Holiday Bowl. And won.

They were ranked 14th and riding a 12-game winning streak when they played No. 19 SMU in the 1980 Holiday Bowl/”Miracle Bowl.” And won (on the last play of the game). 

The Cougars were No. 9 and riding a 12-game winning streak when they played Indiana in the 1979 Holiday Bowl. They lost (by a point after missing a last-second field goal attempt).

BYU’s win over No. 1 Miami gets mentioned as a big game, and it was, but the Cougars were ranked only 16th at the time and it was only the second game of the season. There was not much riding on the outcome heading into the contest other than the opportunity of beating the No. 1 team, polishing the program’s resume and earning a promotion in the rankings.

In both 2006 and 2007 the Cougars reeled off 10 straight wins, but they never were ranked higher than 19th.

Let’s call Friday’s game the biggest game for BYU since 2001. A win would boost the team’s credibility and possibly pave the way for a rise in the rankings. But it’s prudent to wonder how much higher the Cougars can climb in the polls. The Pac-12 is belatedly joining the season after seven weeks, and, fair or not, those teams will get consideration ahead of the Cougars if they win. On the other hand, it’s a weird season and all the old (unwritten) rules have been tossed aside, which is why Coastal Carolina, Marshall and Liberty are in the national rankings.

In the season of COVID-19, Friday’s BYU-Boise State showdown shapes up to be the Game of the Year in the Mountain West.