As major college football prepares for its first season of a playoff, the gap between teams in the power five conferences (ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC) and the rest of the FBS has grown.
One of the programs that appears to be getting squeezed, especially from a scheduling standpoint, as the SEC has an upcoming mandate on playing opponents from the power five is BYU. Under 48-year-old Bronco Mendenhall, the Cougars are an impressive 82-34.
I recently sat down with Mendenhall to discuss how he approaches running a program that seems to be getting pushed away from the core of major college football, what he likes most about his 2014 squad and his scary fullback with a very intriguing background.
Q: Coming out of the spring, what excites you most about this team?
Mendenhall: Our quarterback Taysom Hill is back. Our running back Jamaal Williams is back. Our entire offensive front is back. We have more depth at receiver than we had a year ago. Defensively, we do have to replace some really good players, but the system is in place and has been for nine years. We’ve averaged being in the top 20 in scoring defense every year, and it looks like we’ll be able to do that again. I think we do have a good team with not as difficult a schedule as we had a year ago. I am very excited about this team.
Q: Who were some pleasant surprises for you who have emerged?
Bronson Kaufusi. We moved him from defensive end to outside linebacker, so we really like what he was doing. Rob Daniel, who started for us at corner last year. We’ve increased his role. Alani Fua at the other outside ‘backer spot did really well. Plus, we had some returning Missionaries. Kesni Tausinga, a nose tackle, we really like him. Also, Travis Tuiloma, who played for us before he went on his mission as a nose tackle and now he’s back, and Graham Rowley was a defensive end and he’s now back. And we have a converted rugby player we’re really, really excited about.
BYU’s won the rugby national championship three years in a row, and Paul Lasike, a fullback for us, had a very nice spring. He’s about 6-3, 240. We taught him the rules [of football] last year and we played a support role, but now he’s really taken off. He’s a pretty unique story. He’s very violent when he runs with the ball, and he’s super hard working. Most of these kids who are converted rugby players or are Polynesian from New Zealand are so humble. So he’s really fun to work with.
Q: Would you be tempted to try Lasike at linebacker?
He could play a lot of different spots. Most of our guys are afraid of him when he has the ball in his hands, because he runs so physical [check the :28 mark of this video to see him truck a rugby player]. Cal had a really hard time tackling him in the [rugby] national championship game. Watching him run over players and then you consider that same dynamic with pads, it’s pretty good.
Q: Is he about a 4.7 [40-yard dash] guy?
I’d say he’s faster than that. He’s also a great kicker, too. He could punt if he wanted to.
Q: Is he the first rugby player you’ve taken from that program?
Yeah, he is. And I’m hoping to have more if there are more like him.
Q: There’s been a lot of talk about the SEC scheduling and Notre Dame is exempted into their Big Five conference mandate, but it doesn’t seem like BYU is. How frustrating has this been as all of these scheduling parameters get sorted out as the sport moves forward in the new College Football Playoff era?
I really don’t get too worried about the things that I can’t control, and I can’t control that. I do favor a level playing field, and I always have. The current train, though, seems to be moving away from that. However, as you shift now towards the playoff model, it appears to me that the same number of conference games ought to be played amongst all power-five teams, and that all power-five leagues should have a conference championship game.
So if there are five, let’s make those five as equal as possible if that is how the selection is going to happen. And for those of us that aren’t part of the power five, let’s make the standards really clear about what we have to [do to] play for a national championship so we can qualify.
Q: But it sure does appear like the system is shifting further and further away from a program such as BYU being able to be in line to make a playoff even potentially, no?
What I do know is, if we win all of our games or possibly only lose one, with the kind of team we have, it’ll be hard not to make an argument for us. So we’ll see what happens.
Q: You can say, “We can only focus on what we can control,” but how challenging is it to know things are shifting away if you’re outside of these power five conferences?
Not as tough as you might think. While there is uncertainty, what we can control is we have a very unique institution, unlike any other in the world with really unique kids and if we have a [good] season, which I think we can, so we can be in that dialogue. I hope to leverage our program to be to the point, where people say, “You can’t leave them out.”
Q: There’s been a lot of politicking that goes on with many coaches …
We really don’t. Our attendance, our record and our reputation — you would think would’ve demand inclusion anywhere. But until then, we’ll just play our way in.
Q: How much tougher has scheduling gotten?
For us, late in November, it’s really hard to schedule. The teams that are in conferences don’t want to play, and they certainly don’t wanna come to Provo [Utah] to play.
Q: But this system will hold that against you.
Exactly right. So in the meantime, we’ll go and play wherever we have to go and play, and the easiest framework that I tell our players and our administration is that my goal is to help us play our way in. It’s just harder.
Bruce Feldman is a senior college football reporter and columnist for FoxSports.com and Fox Sports 1. Follow him on Twitter @BruceFeldmanCFB.