PROVO — Give credit to Bronco Mendenhall for speaking truth — often a rarity among professional and collegiate coaches.
Rather than play a challenging non-conference schedule, the third-year coach at Virginia prefers softer competition. The Daily Progress in Charlottesville quoted Mendenhall saying he wants to pile up wins against crummy teams ahead of play in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
“I want to play the worst Power 5 team that we can play,” Mendenhall said, emphasizing the word "worst" as he said it. “That’s what the ACC requires, you have to play one other Power 5 (team in nonconference play).
“I want to find the worst one we can play, so we can get another win.”
Mendenhall has a point that his former employer might want to consider. Instead of playing a slew of Power 5 teams during the first few weeks of each season, maybe it is time BYU eases up on the harder competition.
Since becoming an independent in football after leaving the Mountain West Conference before the 2011 season, BYU has repeatedly begun each season with a schedule that ranks among the toughest in college football over the first month. This season is no exception, as September has the Cougars playing Arizona, Cal, Wisconsin and Washington.
As an independent, BYU straddles a fine line of trying to force its way into the national conversation while at the same time not overscheduling. The balancing act is made more difficult knowing most of the better teams usually are open to playing BYU only before conference games start in late September.
To remain relevant and avoid becoming an afterthought over the final two months, BYU has to think big early. Hence, the first month is almost always guaranteed to be extremely difficult.
“Those are when you can get the best games,” athletic director Tom Holmoe said in a January meeting with local media members. “It’s a matter of either getting those games or getting games where people aren’t going to feel like it’s a good schedule. Our team needs to play a good schedule.”
While Holmoe makes a sound argument, BYU still has to find a happy medium. BYU fans demand a competitive schedule, but it can’t come at the expense of the team.
This season, for example, BYU practically starts with must-win situations at Arizona and at home against Cal. Losing both of those games likely would lead to four defeats in the first month, considering the Cougars also play at national championship contenders Wisconsin and Washington. The schedule would be more manageable if BYU played teams closer to the levels of Cal and Arizona instead of the Badgers and Huskies.
Coming off a 4-9 season, BYU faces enormous pressure to win at least six games to become bowl eligible. Utah State, Boise State and Utah also are on the schedule later in the season.
Mendenhall knows full well of BYU’s quandary. Future Virginia schedules include games against Notre Dame, Georgia and BYU. Virginia is set to play the Cougars in 2021, 2023 and 2025.
“I don’t want to go to Boise,” Mendenhall said, referring to a game at Boise State on last year’s schedule. “I don’t want to go to UCLA, I don’t want to go to Oregon, I don’t want to go back to BYU. I’d rather them come here and lose.”
ACC rules dictate each team play at least one nonconference game against a Power 5 opponent in addition to eight conference games. Mendenhall wants the required Power 5 opponent against “the worst one we can play.”
As for the other nonconference opponents, he said: “I want to find three other games that are close and beatable.” That same honesty that sometimes got Mendenhall in trouble at BYU obviously followed him east.
Without the ability to play for a conference championship, BYU can’t afford to dumb down the schedule as much as possible like Mendenhall advocates. But softening it up a bit might be in the program’s best interests.