Flashback: Jim McMahon's Magical Season (1980)

At this time 30 years ago, Jim McMahon was quarterbacking the Brigham Young Cougars. Some would say he was following in pretty big footsteps succeeding NFL first round draft pick Marc Wilson who had just rewrote the BYU record book the year before. In reality, McMahon was blazing his own trail. Jimmy Mac was a prodigy, and his play in 1980 made that clear to everyone.

Just six years ago, ESPN ranked Jim McMahon's 1980 season 76th on their list of the top 100 seasons produced by any athlete, in any sport, college or pro, male or female, in the last 25 years. He was the only college quarterback on the list.

What made McMahon’s 1980 season so magical?

First, his statistics were phenomenal; off the charts. He had 284 completions on 445 attempts (63.8%) for 4,571 yards, with 47 touchdowns and 17 interceptions. His pass efficiency rating was 176.9. If the NCAA counted bowl games in a player’s season stats back then, McMahon would have been credited with the first 5,000 yards passing season and over 50 touchdown passes (5,017 and 51 to be exact).

To put this into perspective, along the way to these numbers McMahon set 34 NCAA records. Those records included the 4,571 yards passing, the 47 touchdowns, and the 176.9 pass efficiency rating. The 4,571 passing yards were 851 yards more than the previous record.

The most astonishing feat was that he reached these new heights with only 445 pass attempts. Last year, Houston quarterback Case Keenum threw the ball 700 times. Using McMahon’s averages, he would have had 7,190 yards passing and 74 touchdown passes, if he attempted 700 passes. Keenum only had 5,671 yards passing and 44 touchdown passes.

Maybe if McMahon had played more than one full game that year, he would have thrown 700 times, but he didn’t play much in the second half of games because of reason number two.

Second, the way he won games. After an opening day 25-21 loss to New Mexico, Jim McMahon led BYU to 11 straight victories by an average score of 49-16. In twelve games, BYU scored 560 points (606 with bowl game) and led the nation in scoring by a touchdown. A win in the Holiday Bowl made the eleven consecutive victories twelve, which was the longest win streak and most wins in one season in school history.

He beat Utah by 50 points, 56-6. It is still the largest margin of victory for either side in this rivalry.

BYU set the school record for most points scored in one game—twice. McMahon threw for six touchdowns and ran for two as BYU put up 70 points against Utah State. Two weeks later, he tossed six more touchdown passes, in the first half, as BYU hung 83 on UTEP.

In total, BYU scored over 50 points five times—also a school record (it was tied in 1990, and broken in 2001).

As impressive as all this was, no win in 1980 was greater than the last.

Third, Jimmy Mac got BYU its first bowl win. The 20-point comeback with 3:58 is a fixture in Cougar Lore. I have summarized it here. McMahon willed the team to victory. He insisted that the coaches not give up. The win required the whole team, but the team drew their strength from Jim McMahon that night.

He made every play that he had to make. He made everyone associated with BYU football believe that anything was possible. No game was out of reach with McMahon at the helm. Before the game, McMahon was already a BYU legend, now his legend was etched in stone.

Long before people were talking about it, Jim McMahon proved that he had It. In 1980, number 9 had BYU football on cloud 9.

More flashbacks can be found on the Flashbacks page.

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