BYU Sits on the "Edge of the Knife"

Now that the major college football bowls are concluded and two national champions (USC and Louisiana State) have been crowned, two recurring thoughts I have tried to ignore all season have finally overtaken me.

The first is that BYU isn't competing in the MWC any longer and the second is that the MWC can't compete with the BCS conferences – and is starting to lose ground to other mid-major conferences.

Allow me to dwell in the past. Over the past two years, BYU's football program somehow lost itself in the mediocrity of the Mountain West Conference (MWC).

The football program that once looked to join the BCS big boys, their conferences and be included in their bowl games is a sad reflection of itself.

Facilities have been upgraded and commitments have been made to take another step up the college football ladder of respectability.

However, BYU's stumbling and bumbling over the past two years has removed them from the national college football radar. Currently, they only have LaVell Edwards' legacy to fall back upon. If there are any remnants of that legacy, it is now on life-support after this past season.

Case in point: During two losses on national TV to Colorado State and Boise State, the announcers used terms such as "embarrassing" and "humiliating."

So how deep is the hole the Cougars have dug for themselves?

MWC football is mired in mediocrity and may even have slipped last season to a position slightly behind the MAC, WAC and Conference USA.

Only four of the Mountain West's eight teams posted winning records. Two of the four were barely over .500 and one of those teams, Air Force, lost four of their last five games.

Of the four teams that posted winning records, three went to bowl games. Two of them, Colorado State and New Mexico, were blown out by middle of the road BCS teams, Oregon State (7-5, fourth in the Pac-10) and Boston College (8-5, fifth in the Big East). The third was MWC champion Utah, who walloped Conference USA champion Southern Mississippi in the Liberty Bowl.

Indeed, the MWC's biggest wins over BCS teams this past year were against California (7-6), Oregon (8-4), Wisconsin (7-6), Northwestern (6-7) and Georgia Tech (7-6). These teams were all middle to bottom of the pack in their respective conferences. The MWC finished the football season with an overall mark of 52-46 (.570).

If you take away hard fought wins over teams like Wofford, Montana State, Texas State-San Marcos, Eastern Washington, North Texas State, Weber State, UTEP, Utah State and Samford, the conference finishes under .500. That's hardly a bell-weather year for the conference.

It is easy to see why after having four bowl game opportunities last year and only have three teams eligible that the MWC now has only three bowl affiliations. In contrast, Conference USA currently has five bowl affiliations.

The MWC appears to be moving in the wrong direction in the world of college football respectability. True, other mid-major conferences also didn't fare well during bowl season. As the MWC loses respectability, so do the teams that play in it, including BYU.

After two dismal seasons, BYU finds itself near the bottom of a mediocre conference that is slowly losing its national respect. It has only been seven years since BYU dominated a rising conference after building a national reputation on WAC championships.

There was a time in the 80s and 90s when I thought BYU could compete consistently with teams in the Top 10. Right now, I'm not sure we can compete with anyone in the Top 25, let alone our own conference. Many lay the blame for the program's demise totally at the feet of head coach Gary Crowton. I don't. I believe BYU's lack of recent success is part of a bigger picture that includes:

1. Much higher percentage of BYU football players serving LDS missions now than when LaVell Edwards was coach. That's a very good thing for the school Board of Trustees and the LDS Church that sponsors the university, but not so good for the consistency and continuity of the football program. Crowton has turned to the junior college ranks this off-season to fill these gaps that have become gaping holes or weaknesses.

2. Mediocre recruiting in the late 1990s (loss of our Polynesian recruiting connection for a time hurt).

3. Lack of support for non-LDS and minority students to help them meet life-style changes while attending school in Provo. Have we focused too much on LDS recruits who more easily meet the universities standards to the exclusion of non-LDS players who can also meet the standards?

4. The NCAA reduction in football scholarships a few years ago helped BYU and other mid-major teams in the country go after better athletes and improve their programs – e.g. Colorado State, Louisville, Marshall, Texas Christian, Boise State, etc.

5. The failure of the athletic department, until recently, to upgrade its facilities.

All were gradually building before Crowton's arrival. He has had to learn on the job to deal with many of these challenges, provided excellent solutions and leadership in some areas. He made progress with the handling of missionaries. He revisited and prioritized the need for quick-impact JC players. He significantly improved the academic support system for players. He is also making strides with the support system some athletes need for the life-style changes they encounter on campus. He had a banner year on the field in 2001.

But Crowton has also made his fair share of mistakes on and off the field.

The legacy of BYU's football program is a testament to the incredible job LaVell Edwards did for almost 30 years.

Some fans called for Crowton to lose his job after last season. Some even want him to fail this season year so he will be fired.

Those who support these thoughts better take a long look at what another dismal season will do to the program as a whole. It could possibly damage the program to the point where it could take years to recover.

I'm neither hot nor cold on Crowton because he's been scuffling since he came to Provo. I am an avid BYU supporter. I hope our new-found optimism over BYU's recruiting success brings about a very positive change this year on the field. There is a lot more at stake than a head coach's job.

To borrow a phrase from the movie, "Lord of the Rings," this program sits on the "edge of a knife."

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