BYU's sights are set on a repeat of 1984

Alden writes for the Associated Press.

BYU is preparing to celebrate the 25th anniversary of one of the most unlikely national championship teams.

The Cougars of 1984 went from unranked to the top of the polls, beating every team on the schedule and the college football system to claim the national title, despite playing in a conference that was often overshadowed by America's rich and powerful leagues.

Sounds like a plan for the current Cougars.

In 2009, BYU will again try to overcome tradition to win a national championship. No team from outside the power conferences -- excluding independents such as Notre Dame -- has won a national title since BYU's.

But the current Cougars have the type of team -- and the type of difficult nonconference schedule -- to do it again. If the Cougars can beat Oklahoma and Florida State in September on the way to an undefeated season, it'll be hard to keep them out of the national championship game in Pasadena on Jan. 7.

Lose to the Sooners and Seminoles, and BYU's Bowl Championship Series hopes end before fall begins.

"I'm not going to back away from that," BYU Coach Bronco Mendenhall said. "If it costs us an undefeated season and the BCS-buster spot, I'm still looking at the broader perspective. Eventually, we're going to get there and the lessons we learn in those games are going to help us get there."

In recent years, perfect seasons by Utah, BYU's Mountain West Conference rival, and Boise State and Hawaii of the Western Athletic Conference have earned those teams bids to the Bowl Championship Series.

BYU and the rest of the potential BCS busters know that the next step beyond just crashing the party is to be the team to leave with the biggest trophy.

"If they were to run the table, I don't think there's any question that there would really be some serious challenge for it," said LaVell Edwards, coach of BYU's 1984 title team. "It would be interesting to see what happened. It would have to be a heck of a year."

A team from one of the nonautomatic qualifying conferences has made the BCS four of the last five years. While that has sated some of the BCS critics, Utah's perfect season in 2008 and Sugar Bowl victory against Alabama sparked a new round of outrage.

The Mountain West has been pushing all it can for changes to the BCS, proposing a playoff format that was shot down by the other conferences and then taking the fight to Capitol Hill.

Unless Congress throws a block on the BCS, though, the best argument leagues such as the Mountain West and the WAC can make is to beat teams from the six conferences that created and dominate the system.

"If it's not going to happen postseason, currently, under the system, then we're going to make a point to make it preseason," Mendenhall said.

The Cougars entered fall camp confident about senior quarterback Max Hall, who has lived up to the lofty standards set at BYU by players such as Steve Young, Jim McMahon and Ty Detmer. Hall completed 69% of his passes last season while throwing for 3,957 yards and 35 touchdowns.

Hall has a new offensive line in front of him, but still has bruising back Harvey Unga to keep defenses from focusing only on the pass. Unga has averaged almost 5 yards per carry in his career and is 841 yards short of Curtis Brown's school rushing record.

"I'm very excited about this football team. I think we're going to win a lot of games," Hall said. "I'm as focused as I've ever been in my life on the game right now. This is the most prepared team I've ever been associated with."

They'd better be.

The Cougars' nonconference schedule already included a home game against Atlantic Coast Conference contender Florida State on Sept. 19, when BYU added to its degree of difficulty by agreeing to play Oklahoma at the Dallas Cowboys new stadium in the opener Sept. 5.

"That's something we've been wanting. We've been wanting to be in the national spotlight and to prove ourselves against a team like Oklahoma and prove all the doubters wrong," tight end Dennis Pitta said.

That's nothing new at BYU. The Cougars opened the 1984 season out of the polls despite going 11-1 the year before. It took an upset of No. 3 Pittsburgh in the season opener to get BYU in the rankings. Then they slowly moved up as every other team lost at least a game or two.

The Cougars reached the top of the polls in mid-November when Oklahoma beat Nebraska and Navy upset then-unbeaten South Carolina, leaving BYU as the only unbeaten team in the country.

This was long before the BCS and any of the bowl coalitions that preceded it. The Cougars' postseason invitation was to the Holiday Bowl, where they beat a so-so Michigan team 24-17 on Dec. 21, then had to wait 10 days to learn their fate once the New Year's Day games were finished.

Once the final votes were tallied, BYU was still on top.

"The longer it goes, it still boggles my mind that it happened. It took a combination of a lot of factors," Edwards said. "I think when it finally happened and we got to be No. 1 then I think people just thought 'you know, these guys have been knocking around for a while now so they might be pretty good.' "

The biggest criticism BYU faced that year was the schedule, playing in the Western Athletic Conference and getting little television exposure compared to the big-name conferences.

That hasn't changed a whole lot. BYU no longer plays in the WAC, but the strength of the Mountain West is questioned much the same way, although Utah's 31-17 win over Alabama in January certainly gave the league some credibility.

BYU players will be wearing a patch on their jerseys this season, commemorating what the Cougars did 25 years before.

"We're in a similar position now. We get to see all the things a team like that accomplished and it gives us a lot of hope," Pitta said. "We're confident in the things we can do and we know that we can be a great football team."

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