Did the '93 Holy War end the Cougar dynasty?

Nearly two decades ago, the Holy War landscape was far different than what we see today. BYU not only dominated the series against Utah, but clearly owned the entire Western Athletic Conference. From the late 70s to the early 90s, Cougar football was at its pinnacle of success -- an era defined by their 1984 national championship. 

But things began to change in the 1990s. Gone were the expected 10-win seasons and though the Cougars still managed to keep their grip on conference domination, they lost control of owning the Holy War outright.

With a game-winning kick to wrap up a 34-31 victory down in Provo, Ron McBride's 1993 Utes did something no other Utah team had done in over two-decades: win in Cougar Stadium. That moment ushered in a new era of Utah football and they would use that as a springboard to national relevance a year later. 

For BYU, though, the opposite happened. Sure, the Cougars weren't all that good that season, entering the Holy War with a fairly mediocre 5-4 record. But they still managed to win a share of the WAC and received another berth to the Holiday Bowl -- they'd lose to Ohio State. But things began to change for the Cougars and Utes after that victory.

To get an understanding of how much changed in the Holy War post-1993, you've got to look at it pre-1993. By all accounts, it was a series as lopsided today as Boise State and Idaho. For Utah, just keeping the game competitive was in some ways a moral victory. They weren't going to beat BYU and both teams knew it. 

This began, of course, when LaVell Edwards took control of Cougar football in 1972. Back then, BYU was not a good program. They barely made any noise at any point, only claiming one conference championship and zero bowl berths. 

Edwards' first season saw minimal success, as he guided BYU to a 7-4 record. They also beat Utah, in Salt Lake City. Back then, that was a huge deal, since up until that point, Utah had won 4 straight in the series and had only lost three times before at home to the Cougars. So with one season under his belt, Edwards was already 1-0 against the Utes and claimed a huge victory on his rival's field.

That would set the tone that established BYU's dominance in the 1970s and 80s. From that initial victory, the Cougars would only lose twice until that 1993 win by the Utes in the Holy War. It was a moment in time most Ute fans would like to forget and one many BYU fans refuse to forget. 

In 1988, Utah made some noise by clobbering the Cougars 57-28. It was Jim Fassel's fourth season On the Hill and many fans felt -- or hoped -- it would be a turning point in the rivalry. Who knows, maybe that was the beginning signs of the Cougar empire falling -- but it didn't happen the next season, as Ute fans had hoped. In what turned out to be Fassel's second to last game at Utah, BYU decided to pay Utah back and embarrassed them 70-31 down in Provo. 

It was, unquestionably, the worst loss in the rivalry's history. It also cast doubt on the hopes Utah was somewhat regaining a bit of control against the Cougars. They weren't. Not yet, anyway. 

Then 1993 changed it all. 

Fast forward 16 years and the entire dynamics of the series has changed. Utah's gone from just hoping to make a bowl game to establishing a realistic claim to a national championship. What happened between then and now? How did Utah emerge from the wasteland to pass BYU in supremacy?  Well it's not as black and white as maybe my initial question made it seem, but I do believe it does tie to that 1993 game. 

From 1979 to 1993, there were a cluster of great BYU teams. The height of this, obviously, was in 1984 when they won the national championship. But for a decade and a few years, it seemed each Cougar team tried to one-up the last in terms of greatness. Some succeeded, others faltered, but it didn't change the fact every single season it was the Cougars winning the WAC and playing in the Holiday Bowl. 

Let me further break down that 15-year run by looking at 10-win seasons, top-25 finishes and conference championships. 

Year 10+ wins Ranked Conference Championships
1979  X X (13) X
1980 X X(12) X
1981 X X(13) X
1982 X
1983 X X(7) X
1984 X X(1) X
1985 X X(16) X
1986
1987
1988
1989 X X(22) X
1990 X X(22) X
1991 X(23) X
1992 X

As you can see, over the course of 14 seasons, BYU won 10 or more games 8 times, won the WAC 11 times and finished in the top-25 9 times. 

That's a pretty remarkable run for any program, especially one like BYU, who a decade earlier hadn't even found itself on the national stage. 

But for all the Cougars did up until that point, their success would wane considerably over the next 14 years. 

That isn't to say BYU has been bad, they haven't (beyond the final three years of Crowton), but outside of 1996, there really isn't an eye-popping great season to be had. Sure, they've put together some really good teams, but even those can't live up to the levels reached in the 80s. 

In fact, the Cougar football program post-1993 has built itself up as a decent program without any real substance beyond one really great season. There haven't been huge wins over BCS elites (like in 1990, when they knocked off #1 Miami), ungodly winning streaks and certainly not the dominance they saw over Utah during that span. 

To compare with the pre-1993 Cougars, here's a similar table for the post-1993 Cougars.

Year 10-wins Ranking Conference Championships
1994 X X(18)
1995 X
1996 X X(5) X
1997
1998
1999 X
2000
2001 X X(25) X
2002
2003
2004
2005
2006 X X(16) X
2007 X X(14) X
2008 X X(25)

 

From 1994-2008, BYU won 10+ games  six times and did manage to win six conference championships. Yet that success is far less impressive than what they saw in the 1980s -- where they put together four 1-loss or less seasons. That's only happened once since, in 1996. 

Even the recent resurgance of Bronco's Cougars lacks the buzz of the 80s Cougars. Maybe it's the fact they're only 2-2 against the Utes and two of those victories were won in the final seconds. It could also be their mediocre bowl perfromances (they're a blocked FG away from being 1-3 in bowl games under Mendenhall). Finally, maybe it's their lack of Big Wins -- something Edwards' teams had. 

Whatever the reason, there just seems to be something different about the last three BYU teams and the first three from '79 to '81. Beyond that, though, the stretch from 1997 to 2005 really wasn't great for the Cougars. 2001 is the only season that sticks out and that ended with two straight losses. 

So what does this all mean, if anything?

Well prior to their victory in 1993, the Utes were constantly living in the shadows of BYU. No one thought they would ever make the rivalry competitive or create the type of team that could match the Cougars in terms of national stature. After that win, the Utes regained some ground in the rivarly and parlayed that into success of their own.

There were many factors at play, but when the Utes became competitive, it was at the expense of the Cougars. Which isn't a surprise, since BYU had owned the state since the mid-70s and that quickly changed with the emergence of the Utah football team in the early 90s. The Cougars were no longer the only show in town and as they regressed a bit in the 90s, Utah found its place. 

What that means for the future is uknown. It does appear Utah has a higher ceiling -- at the moment -- than BYU, though. And while the Cougars continue to field good teams, it's questionable if they'll ever be able to replicate what they accomplished in the 80s -- or even what Utah did in 2008. 

How much of this ties back to that 1993 Holy War is debatable, but I believe it changed the landscape of the rivalry and subsequently the prospects of both teams.

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