ATI 2.13 – BYU Football and a Little Conference Craziness

James Lark

How do you feel about BYU football, the quarterback issues, and the coaching staff after the New Mexico State game last weekend?  Does James Lark’s performance warrant another quarterback controversy heading into the bowl game in San Diego next month?

Carl: I’m more disillusioned than anything.  I’m disheartened that common sense didn’t take precedence over values when deciding on a quarterback.  I’m upset that there wasn’t enough faith to make a switch.  I’m irritated that the playbook has been so vanilla the past three seasons.  I’m frustrated that football is 5th and big games are just another walk in the park.  I’m not sure I was even this negative when Gary Crowton flushed BYU down the toilet.  Nothing about this season tells me we’re heading in the right direction.  If anything, it tells me we’re pointed in the right direction, but we have no motor, sails or paddles.

Truly, anyone who read my preview, knew the performance Lark put on was exactly the way I thought it would go down.  I enjoyed watching BYU circa 2007…you know, when we still threw the football and the only thing to gripe about were Bronco’s slow starts out of the gates.  Lark simply made throws that Riley Nelson could not, he stayed poised in the pocket, actually had pocket presence/awareness, scrambled to pass, not to run, and most importantly, he threw the ball away.  I haven’t seen Riley do any of those QB savvy things much this season.  I understand it was NMSU, but Lark deserves to showcase his stuff against a tougher opponent in the bowl game.  And if Lark doesn’t cut the mustard, I’m sure Nelson would enjoy the underdog, come off the bench and lead your team for a come from behind victory to end his career.

Don: This debate will rage on into the off season all the way until Spring Camp starts in 2013.  Bronco is in a tough spot on this one.  He has clearly made his bed with his man crush on Riley (can I refer to a man crush when using the cliche “made his bed”?  It’s 2012, so, yep I can.) throughout the season, and at this stage in the game, it’s too late for any of this to really be significant by playing the “if only” game.  On the one hand, Bronco’s loyalty to Riley has both baffled me and at times pissed me off.  And yet, it wasn’t so long ago that Bronco was criticized for NOT sticking to his guns and having a very twitchy trigger finger rotating players too easily.  Whether or not he should have gone with Lark earlier and what Lark’s performance in fabulous Las Cruces really isn’t the real problem here for Bronco.  It’s the PR nightmare it has created for the program that is his real problem now. Here’s the bottom line:  Lark had an amazing first and possibly only start of his career in a POS stadium against an even bigger POS team.  That said, when you play a POS team like New Mexico State, you should do to them exactly what Lark did with his aerial fire power that was truly awesome to behold.  I don’t care so much about his stats and the end result, because this game was won the day it was scheduled.  What I saw and loved in Lark on Saturday was a strong arm, accurate delivery, a calm presence behind center, and some serious swagger.  You could tell Lark felt on top of the world in that game like his poop don’t stink…and on Saturday, it probably didn’t.  What this performance did was punctuate a roller coaster, head scratcher of a season.  It put an already way over-analyzed situation and program and put it under an even bigger microscope, which I expect to actually produce positive dividends in the long run. Instead of going into the off season in a state of complacency after beating up on crappy teams, BYU is coming off a loss to San Jose State they should have won, and a game they did win but is riddled with QB controversy.  Wherever you fall on the opinion meter with Bronco, Riley, and Lark, the truth is probably somewhere in the middle.  What all of this equals is a very interesting and lively off season.

Matt: My heart tells me that yes, it absolutely should launch another quarterback controversy, but I already know it doesn’t matter; the hullabaloo is only in the minds of the fans.  Short of Riley Nelson’s incapability to walk under his own accord, he will get the start in San Diego.  My heart aches for James Lark and the constant snubbing he’s received over his career and want nothing more than for him to get a start in a bowl game.  I just truly find it difficult to swallow that a former 4-star recruit is not as good as an unheralded non-recruit; I just don’t buy it.  Bronco’s infatuation with Riley Nelson is unexplainable and unfortunately, in my mind, has cast a huge gray cloud over this program and what we can expect as the team prepares for San Diego State next month and then on into next season.

Mike: Lark’s performance Saturday should absolutely create a QB controversy along with casting serious doubt in whoever is driving this crazy train. My favorite is Bronco and his apologists suggesting Larks performance should be kept in check due to NMSU’s poor defense. Saturday was Lark’s first career start and compared to Riley’s stats vs. a comparably poor Weber St defense (Riley 18/29 244 yds 1 TD 1 INT vs Lark 34/50 384 yds 6 TD 0 INT) its normal to wonder what might have been had Lark entered the second half of the Boise game. Bronco has stated Riley will start the Poinsettia Bowl if he’s healthy. On an interesting side note Jim Harbaugh in an exact same scenario. He started the better performing Collin Kaepernick over the recovered incumbent Alex Smith for the 49ers. In both cases the head coach is suggesting they’re doing what’s best for the team.

BYU Head Coach Bronco Mendenhall

After another mediocre season is Bronco on the hot seat? Which coaching changes, if any, will BYU make before next season?

Carl: Bronco is here, unless he chooses to leave.  Just my opinion there.  Other than that, I think the offensive line gets a new coach.  Offensive Coordinator position is next in line, but I think BYU keeps most things in place if Bronco stays on board.

Don: I don’t think the shake up will be as dramatic outwardly as most would like, and some would expect.  There will be changes, but they will be organizational changes internally would be my guess.  New expectations laid out, a new mentality, and a shuffling of responsibilities.  BYU is committed to Bronco because that’s what BYU does and they don’t have any other option.  I expect one coaching change at the Offensive Line position, and I expect Bronco to name a new DC, probably Coach Howell.  This allows Bishop Bronco, er, I mean Coach Mendenhall flexibility to manage a program that has lost direction since he assumed the DC role himself.  I would not be surprised to see a pseudo return to our roots with an increased role once again from Coach Reynolds on the offensive end, possibly a Co-OC title and responsibility.

Matt: Bronco has too much change in the pocket to be let go.  Is the seat warming up, yes.  But with only one season remaining on his current contract, 2013 will likely be the end of his tenure at BYU.  Bronco said he never intended to be LaVell Edwards when he took this job.  I think at this point he realizes that a mutual parting of the ways is best for both sides.  Bronco will coach in 2013. And barring an inexplicable attachment to a gritty, but untalented quarterback, BYU fans will be mildly fine with his performance next season.

As far as changes go, I expect Brandon Doman will be let go. I expect Mark Weber and Jay Omer to be gone as well.  The thing to really watch for though will be to see who Tom Holmoe brings in.  I say that because knowing it will be Mendenhall’s last season, Holmoe will want pieces in place that will transition into a new regime smoothly in order to avoid a full-blown coaching search in the next off-season.  I don’t have any theories behind that statement; let’s just call it a gut feeling.

Mike: Because of Bronco’s 10 win seasons and his “spiritual” extra credit it will take more than another mediocre season to get him fired. This isn’t the SEC; this is Happy Valley. Real BYU fans need to have faith that Bronco’s boss Tom Holmoe will make things uncomfortable for Bronco and the underperforming parts of his staff. My suggestion is Holmoe make a few executive decisions. Bronco has been head coaching for eight years but clearly needs an experienced offensive coordinator if he plans to run the defense while head coaching. I have zero faith in Bronco’s hiring decisions. Away from the Holmoe-advised Cahoon/Lewis hires, Bronco has yet to make a good hire. Bronco can’t have it both ways. You can’t hire poor position coaches and disregard recruiting and then play the injury/better execution card when problems arise.

What is the most important lesson BYU learned from this underwhelming season?

Carl: That coaches sticking with their convictions is good for life, but not good for football. You’re not compromising your integrity by making a wrong decision, even if you make the right decision later than everyone else would have liked.  I would have much rather seen all 4-5 QB’s this season and end up with 6 wins if meant that we truly found the right QB because Riley was not the best choice.

Don: I would hope Bronco has learned that head coaches are not often coordinators as well for a reason.  A head coach runs a program, not just once side of the ball.  Especially at BYU where there is so much extra noise a coach has to deal with, it basically guarantees organizational apathy and the proverbial “falling through the cracks” of too many critical team elements that result in seasons like this one.  I also hope Doman learned how critical game management of the offense, the play calling, and the game clock is to a successful season.  So much of what went wrong, like injuries players like Taysom Hill, happened because of poor game management which resulted in poor decision making and communication.  The good news is, all of it can be fixed.  The bad news is, there are a lot of things the Cougar coaching staff needs to fix.

Matt: I don’t know what BYU (as a team) has learned.

  • I know that Bronco should have learned that you can’t take a guy who probably shouldn’t play football and make him your quarterback with your unequivocal support.  He should have learned (after 2010) that you have to communicate better with your coaches.
  • Riley Nelson learned that if you have someone important in your back pocket, you ride that gravy train for all its worth.  What he should have learned was that a true leader finds ways to lead, even if from the sidelines.
  • The defense learned that irony exists even at BYU. Historically, BYU teams and fans knew that if there was time left in the game, it wasn’t over and BYU had a chance to win. But that was with an offensive machine that could explode all over the field at a moment’s notice.  It isn’t the same with a defense; no matter how truly dominant they are.

Mike: I’m hopeful BYU had seen what mediocre looks like. Bronco preaches “getting better” and his defense has never looked better. Unfortunately when you do the math, a great defense added to a below average special teams combined with a 57th ranked offense equals mediocre.

With a new round of Conference realignment talks starting up, BYU fans are sure to have opinions from A to Z on staying independent to joining a conference.  In that context, what is the standard BYU should use or what metrics need to be in place for BYU to consider ending Independence in favor of conference membership?  If BYU ever chooses to make the jump, which conference will they end up in and why?

Carl: We’re getting to a point where teams need the safe haven of conferences more than conferences need teams.  But conferences are being bullies and playing a collegiate game of Risk with all the major TV territories.  In that vein, BYU is a big player for market. Maybe not Provo, but of their national presence.  The cog that is stuck is BYU’s TV rights and not being willing to compromise.  And conferences are simply not willing to waste time trying to make a deal with BYU.  If BYU was willing to concede a little, ACC, Big 12 and possible PAC would be immediately interested in taking them.  No possible way BYU gets in to a SuperConference without concessions.  I’ve been saying it for a little while; I think BYU ends up in the Best of the Rest Conference which I’ve dubbed the CAC- Continental Athletic Conference.  If the teams and conferences can make it work it would take the 16 best teams not in a SuperConference from coast to coast and form the last viable D-1 football conference.

Don: It’s hard to layout exact standards the Cougs should use in determining the best move (which may be no move at all to the disappointment of many) because it all depends on other things.  For example, I still don’t think the needle has moved as significantly as many assume in relation to BYU being in a better or worse position now than they were a month ago even.  If BYU isn’t basically forced to make a move, then obviously the bar is set much higher when it comes to a standard for making a change.  If Notre Dame joins a conference or something else dramatic happens where BYU is literally left standing alone, then the bar is lowered significantly.  Another variable that could swing the needle is which conference would make the move to invite BYU first.  If it’s a Big East or MWC, then “Run Forrest, run.”  If it’s a Big XII, then the equation is changed dramatically.  So the standard of making a change has too many unknowns to it for me to draw a line in the sand.  IF there is a move though and they end up in a conference, at this point I still think it will be the Big XII.  If the Big XII, B1G, SEC and ACC make major moves that bump up their member ship to 14 or higher, there is an outside shot the Pac 12 would almost have to invite BYU to put more skin in the game.  That thought makes me want to hurl since I hate the Pac 12, but that would be the most likely #2 scenario for BYU conference membership.

Matt: Realignment roulette reared its head again as the Big Ten announced additions from Maryland and Rutgers.  The ACC just got Louisville.  Heck, even Conference USA jumped in and got, oh never mind, no one cares who they got.  The Big East insists they are here to stay and Boise State and San Diego State both claim they are loyal. The rest of the country is holding out that the Big East folds. And if anymore teams bail from the ACC, it can’t stand on football much longer either.  BYU is in the position it wants to be now.  If the ultimate goal is distribution and access, it will take a mighty concession from a power conference to get BYU off that position.  There are only two viable conferences that exist now that BYU could go to, and I’d be happy in either; the Big XII and the Pac 12.  A third option would be to get the best of the rest of all the conferences in the “Best of the Rest 5” and make a new conference that spans the continent and secures that final BCS auto bid to the playoff party.

Mike: I’m going to be the honest little kid in The Emperors New Clothes…The King is naked and BYU does not have the program to compete for a national title, BCS birth or a big boy conference championship. Webster defines mediocrity as “the quality or state of being mediocre, moderate ability or value”. This is the current state of BYU football. To be great BYU can’t afford to have below average QBs, position coaches or coordinators. The good news is BYU is close. They have the running backs, receivers and defense to compete with anyone on their upcoming 2013 schedule. They need a physical, old school offensive line and a QB. BYU will also be competing against all star coaching staffs. Let’s hope BYU’s coaching staff can compete on the same high level.

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