When the BYU football team returns to Texas for the third time this season for the Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl on December 30, they will still be trying come up with their first victory in the Lone Star State after losses at Texas and against TCU in Dallas Cowboys Stadium.
The Armed Forces Bowl will provide an opportunity for BYU to prove on national television how the team has improved since their 1-2 start (By they way, BYU has started 1-2 in five of the seven years with Bronco at the helm), but it will also provide Cougar fans with the opportunity to wonder what might have been if the Cougars had come back from their first trip to Texas with an upset win over the Longhorns on September 10.
The Cougars led 13-3 at halftime by holding Texas to 88 total yards in the first half, but surrendered 201 yards in the second half while slowing down on offense and totaling a paltry 45 yards rushing. The loss to the Longhorns was a perfect example of one of the many "Big Game" losses that have doomed Coach Mendenhall since he took over at BYU.
Since he took over the coaching reins in 2005, Bronco has posted an impressive 65-24 record (.730 winning percentage). However, it is interesting to note that Bronco is 39-3 against teams that have finished the regular season with a losing record, according to cougarstats.com. In other words, Bronco is only 26-21 (.553 winning percentage) against teams that finished with a .500 season or a winning record.
So, do Bronco and BYU have a "Big Game" phobia? Let's define a "Big Game" as either a game against a nationally-ranked opponent or against a prominent football program that would give BYU the opportunity to burst onto the national scene and jump up the voter and BCS rankings. Since 2007, for example, I would classify the following regular season games as a "Big Game."
Can BYU win a national championship with Bronco Mendenhall as the head coach?
2011 - @ Texas, vs. Utah, @ TCU (Cowboys Stadium)
2010 - @ Utah, @ TCU, @ FSU
2009 - @ OU (Cowboys Stadium), vs. FSU, vs. TCU, vs. Utah
2008 - @ Utah, @ TCU
2007 - @ UCLA, vs. Utah
BYU's record in those 14 games? Three wins and 11 losses. One can only wonder what BYU's conference affiliation may be had they they won even just three or four more of those games.
Would the Pac-12 or Big 12 have considered BYU even more seriously and/or withstood their TV demands if they had won more than three of those games?
With future schedules loaded with teams such as Notre Dame, Boise State, Georgia Tech, Texas and other "Big Games" in the years to come, there has to be at least one thing that Bronco Mendenhall and BYU can do to reverse the trend, right?
Here's an idea: Win the turnover battle.
In the 14 games listed above, BYU's turnover margin is -33! In fact, BYU had a positive turnover margin in only one of the 14 games (2010 loss at TCU). To make matters worse, in the majority of the "Big Games" (8 of 14) the turnover margin was -3 or worse for the Cougars.
This troubling turnover trend is more than a couple of freak fumbles and poorly-thrown interceptions that have resulted in some debilitating losses for the BYU football program.
BYU's 2011 season has been a perfect example of how important it is for BYU to win the "Big Games" early in the season in order to maintain national interest and recognition throughout the regular season.
BYU has the talent and the recruiting pipeline to be a national force as they enter the prime years of football independence beyond 2012, but Bronco Mendenhall and the BYU coaching staff would be wise to find a way to win the turnover battle against nationally-respected opposing teams in program-making games.
BYU's and Bronco Mendenhall's success as a football independent depends on it.