Okay, Brigham Young Cougars fans, what is the first thing that comes to mind when you remember 1986, 1987, and 1988?
The majority of fans would probably say one of three things:
1. No WAC championships.
2. Poor quarterback play.
3. Those were the down years.
When 1986 began, expectations were sky high. Winning the WAC and good quarterback play had become a given. BYU had won the last 10 WAC championships, and the starting quarterback had thrown for over 3,000 yards seven consecutive years while collecting countless awards, honors, and accolades. From 1979 to 1985, BYU had won 77 games and lost 12--an average of 11 wins and 1.7 losses per season.
When 1986 ended, BYU football came crashing back to earth. To put it succinctly, BYU did not win the WAC and the quarterback play was unacceptable. That is how 1986 was remembered. The next two years were a rerun of 1986.
In 1989, Ty Detmer took over full-time at quarterback and restored order to the BYU football universe with a WAC championship and the second most prolific passing season in BYU football history. As for 1986-88, they would be labeled “the down years.” As the years went by, “the down years” would be pushed further and further to the side until they fell completely off the BYU football map.
Looking back on this three year period, 25 years after it started, it becomes evident that “the down years” were, actually, not so down. If we can broaden our persepctive beyond the fact that BYU did not win the WAC championship and that the product coming from the quarterback factory was sub-par, then we can see that each season provided several great moments for BYU football. It also helps that we have collected much more “data” that can help us define what is a down year.
To reevaluate “the down years,” let’s start with a list of pertinent facts from this time period, and follow that with some analysis to provide perspective.
• Jason Buck won the Outland Trophy.
• Lakei Heimuli became the school’s new career rushing leader.
• LaVell Edwards became the winningest coach in WAC history.
• Jeff Wilcox tied the school record for most interceptions in one game (3 vs. Wyoming).
• Jason Buck tied the school record for most sacks in one game (4 vs. Oregon State).
• BYU set new team records for most rushing attempts in one game (77) and most first downs rushing in a game (27) during the Utah game.
• Heimuli tied the school record for most career touchdowns (32).
• Wilcox finished the year with 7 interceptions (tied for 5th most in school history).
• The defense allowed just 88.8 yards rushing per game (Fewest ever in BYU history, and 6th best in the nation that year).
• The defense allowed only 17.1 points per game (only one year since then—2006—has BYU allowed fewer points per game).
• Two players were named All-American.
• Four players were selected in the NFL draft.
• BYU played in the Freedom Bowl.
• Record: 8-5, 2nd WAC
• The BYU defense led the nation in turnovers forced (50—28 interceptions, 22 fumble recoveries).
• The BYU defense set a new school record for most sacks in a single game (10 vs. Colorado State).
• Leonard Chitty set new school records for most consecutive point-after-touchdown conversions (42) and for most field goals (34).
• One player was named All-American.
• Three players were selected in the NFL draft.
• BYU played in the All-American Bowl.
• Record: 9-4, 2nd WAC
• Chuck Cutler had 1,039 yards receiving (2nd most in BYU history).
• Sean Covey was ranked in the top 10 nationally for most passing yards.
• As a team, BYU was ranked 4th in the nation in passing yards.
• Bob Davis was a finalist for the Butkus Award.
• Scott Peterson and Rodney Rice both finished their careers tied for 5th most interceptions in BYU history with 12 each.
• Troy Long finished his career tied for 7th most interceptions in BYU history with 11.
• Eric Mortensen tied a school record with a 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown against Utah State.
• Three players were named All-American.
• Three players were selected in the NFL draft.
• BYU played in, and won, the Freedom Bowl.
• Record: 9-4, 3rd WAC
The purpose of this analysis is to elaborate on some of the more subtle facts, and will ignore the obvious, great facts. For example, Jason Buck winning the Outland Trophy is obviously a great achievement and needs no further explaining to help us see that 1986 does not deserve the stigma of being a down year.
Overall won-loss record. An 8-5 or 9-4 record would have been gladly accepted in 2010. While 1986 was the first time since 1982 that BYU had less than 11 wins in a season, the intervening years have shown that 8-9 wins is a solid season for BYU, not a down year.
BYU had less than 8 wins in 1972-75, 1993, 1995, 1997, 2000, 2002-04, 2005, and 2010.
BYU had 8 or 9 wins in 1976-78, 1982, 1991-92, and 1998-99.
That means that since 1972, when BYU started to have real football success, BYU has had 9 wins or less 24 of the 39 seasons, or 61.5% of the time.
No Conference Championship. While BYU did not win the conference championship, BYU was painfully close to the WAC crown twice. BYU (6-2) finished second in the standings to San Diego State (7-1) in 1986. The difference was San Diego State’s 10-3 win over BYU. The reason San Diego State won was they had one big pass play, and BYU did not.
In 1987, BYU was second once again. This year, the Cougars were 7-1 in the conference with the only loss coming to conference champion Wyoming (8-0). Wyoming beat BYU 29-27. BYU scored a touchdown with 5:53 to play in the game. That made the score 29-27. BYU tried to tie the game with a two-point conversion. If successful, BYU would have been co-WAC champions with Wyoming. Unfortunately, the two-point conversion failed.
While second place is still second place, no matter how you slice it, the fact is BYU was closer to winning the conference crown in 1986 and 1987 than it was in 2009. The Cougars only lost one conference game that year, but it was a 38-7 beating.
Using 1972 as a reference point again, BYU has not won the conference championship 17 times in 39 seasons, or 43.6% of the time. That means BYU has won a conference championship a little more than half of the time. Additionally, BYU finished below 3rd in the conference standings five times.
Going Bowling. From 1986-88, bowl games were still a privilege. The fact that BYU went to a bowl game each of these three seasons carries some weight. Even as WAC champions in 1977 and 1995, BYU did not play in a bowl game.
The 1986, 1987, and 1988 seasons were clearly not some of the best seasons that BYU has had. However, they weren’t some of the worst seasons under LaVell Edwards, either. These three years were, at worst, solid years for BYU football. They should not be viewed as down years that tarnished Edwards’ legacy, and that were detrimental to the program. The facts hardly support such assessments.
I don't advocate for complacency or for BYU football to set its sights on being anything less than the best. I don't think that it was unreasonable for players and fans to be disappointed with the way each year ended, at that time. However, the end result wasn't so severe that these seasons can't now be remembered more for the good that did happen than the unintended shortcomings.
BYU players were still being recognized as All-Americans. A healthy number were moving on to the NFL. School records were being set both individually and as a team. The roster featured several of BYU's best defensive players. BYU still ranked among the best in the nation in many ways.
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