A coach facing a make-or-break season is nothing out of the ordinary. But what about a make-or-break month? That could be the proposition staring down BYU head coach Bronco Mendenhall in 2015.
BYU, standing at the edge of a watershed period for the program’s future, opens 2015 with both the most impressive and most challenging four-game stretch since the Cougars went independent in 2011. An 0-4 start with road games at Nebraska, UCLA and Michigan, and a home date against Boise State, is a very real possibility. That, in turn, would put ignite very real heat on Bronco Mendenhall’s seat, which has been varying degrees of toasty for the past half-decade.
One losing skid as an isolated incident is nothing over which to fret, especially given Mendenhall’s overall successful track record. He’s 90-39 at BYU, with five 10-plus-win seasons to his credit. However, a slow start against a brutal schedule would not be a blip, but part of a recent trend for the Cougars.
BYU endured a four-game losing streak midway through 2014. In 2012, the Cougars dropped 4-of-6 in one stretch. In 2010, they dropped four straight and 5-of-6 in one spell.
Mendenhall responded to previous instances of mounting pressure with staffing moves, some of which paid dividends. Re-adding Robert Anae as offensive coordinator in 2013 gave the Cougars the spark that had been missing from that side of the ball for a few seasons prior. And, with quarterback Taysom Hill returning from injury that sidelined him last season, Anae’s offense has the potential to be particularly explosive in 2015.
The more pressing issue for BYU is on defense, and the buck there stops squarely with Bronco Mendenhall. Sure, the loss of Hill contributed to the Cougars’ woes after a promising start a season ago. But amid the four-game losing streak, BYU gave up no fewer than 31 points each time out, and was waffled to the tune of 55 points in a prime-time beatdown against Boise State.
BYU’s defensive ineptitude in that stretch was reminiscent to 2010, when opponents hung between 27 and 35 points on the Cougars for all five of those losses. Mendenhall addressed the situation by ousting then-defensive coordinator Jamie Hill, and assuming playcalling duties for himself.
Mendenhall is doing so again in 2015, relieving Nick Howell of those responsibilities in the wake of surrendering 55 points in the Miami Beach Bowl loss to Memphis, a contest that was a black eye to the program in more ways than one.
The explosion of points prompted the following response from Mendenhall, via the Daily Herald:
“After reviewing the season, I believe returning to my prior responsibilities directly overseeing the defense gives our team the best chance to achieve the results we want on the field. As a program we’ve had a proven record of defensive success, and I look forward to my role once again as the primary defensive coach working with our coaches and players.”
The ensuing melee was a pockmark on a program that Bronco Mendenhall was hired specifically to clean up after the abortive Gary Crowton era.
The Miami Beach Bowl cast a spotlight on other woes within BYU football, some of which are tied directly to the university’s decision to go independent.
Against the backdrop of Mendenhall getting more aggressive in BYU’s overtures to the Big 12, Jay Drew of the Salt Lake Tribune wrote a column that dissects the financial burdens BYU’s foray into independence created.
Even with an exclusive deal with ESPN, BYU is generating far less than it would in the Big 12. The Cougars are also scrambling to fill all their dates.
Not everything associate with independence is disappointing, at least. Weak late-season scheduling marred BYU’s schedule in years past. Two of the more egregious examples are last November’s date with notoriously downtrodden Savannah State, and this coming October’s matchup against Wagner of the partial-scholarship Northeast Conference.
Take away Wagner’s late-October visit to Provo, however, and BYU actually put together a decent final stretch with a virtual road game against Missouri and a trio of Mountain West opponents on the docket.
With the brutally front-loaded slate to start, BYU could be treading water when November arrives — and Bronco Mendenhall could be on his last legs with the program.