Check out the QB seasons rankings page to see all the seasons before McMahon’s 1980. I’m going season by season for the top 5 to flesh out why they are ranked where they are.
4571 yards, 64% comp, 47 TDs, 18 INTs, 10.27 yards per attempt, 176.9 QB rating, 444 yards rushing, 8 rushing TDs
Ranking the top QB seasons in BYU football history was harder than I thought it would be when I started this months ago and writing them was harder. Choosing the top season, on the other hand, was not really that hard at all. Jim McMahon’s 1980 season was, for me, the easy winner among a field of extremely impressive QB performances, with all of the top 15 warranting consideration as a top season.
12-1 record; 6-1 in the WAC (first place); 46-45 win over SMU in the Holiday Bowl; Finished No. 12 in the AP poll and No. 11 coaches’ poll
Each bowl season brings one of my favorite times of year on ESPN Classic: replays of classic, awesome bowls. I stumbled on the 1980 Holiday Bowl in the 3rd quarter one night and wanted to see the whole thing. Luckily it was replaying in a day or two, and I set the DVR with a smile. Several days later, I hunkered down with a Dr Pepper and some popcorn and watched it.
Several things struck me about the game: the ugly tear-away jerseys, the unbelievable talent of Eric Dickerson and Craig James*, the size of some of the linemen (they were a lot smaller), and just how good both teams were. It was as much fun as watching a live game, complete with Pop-Up Video-style commentary.
* I absolutely despise Craig James as a commentator, but man as he an awesome player at SMU. Maybe he was motivated by his salary.
What was the most stark thing about the game? How bad McMahon was in the first half, and how awesome he was with the game seemingly out of reach. He looked overmatched by the quick, powerful SMU defense in the first half. But in that final quarter, on the way to one of the most amazing comebacks in college football history and an unbelievable day (446 yards and 4 TDs), McMahon dazzled and dominated.
Possibly the best team BYU ever had was the first BYU team to ever win a bowl game. Besides a heart-breaking loss to New Mexico to start the season, the Cougars were perfect. The Cougars had some unbelievable wins that year, like an 83-7 win against UTEP. Can you imagine what the reaction would be like today if someone won a game by that margin? The sportsmanship police would have a heart-attack.
This team was extremely talented, with several future NFL players, and others who would be part of other good future Cougar teams. And at the heart of the team was the rebel McMahon, who had started his career at BYU in 1977 as the punter .
Why is this the best QB season in BYU history?
If you were building the perfect college QB, what would he be like? What traits would he have? This is an incomplete list, but let’s go through it as I explain why McMahon was that perfect prototype in 1980:
- A big arm. McMahon had a big arm, with his historic 41-yard bomb to Clay Brown to win the Holiday Bowl with zero time on the clock as exhibit one, and his 10.27 yards per attempt average, the second-best in school history, as exhibit two.
- Accuracy. He completed 64% of his passes, which is incredible for a QB that threw deep that often.
- Mobility. McMahon was not the runner Steve Young was, but he was a good rusher when healthy, and had incredible pocket presence.
- Leadership. He was renowned at BYU, and later in the NFL, for being the type of QB the rest of the offense would walk through fire for. I have no idea how you measure this, but I think the three best QBs in the BYU history in this regard were McMahon, Ty Detmer and Brandon Doman.
So the ingredients were right, and the results were there. He set 32 NCAA records (that is not a typo) in 1980 alone, including the single-season records for passing yards, total offense, passing TDs and passing efficiency. And think about this: he was the QB at the end of only three games; the Cougars were so dominant, he often sat out a large portion of games.
The nation had yet to really catch-up to just how good BYU was. Despite having arguably the best QB season in college history, he finished a distant 5th in the Heisman Trophy voting. But in 1981 he would win the first ever Davey O’Brien trophy and finished third in the Heisman behind two guys named Marcus Allen (USC) and Hershel Walker (Georgia).
As I alluded to at the beginning of this post, picking McMahon’s 1980 season as the best QB season in BYU history wasn’t really that hard. The top 15 seasons were very closely bunched together. You could make the argument that John Beck’s 2006 season was as high as 4th, and I ranked it No. 14.
But close examination of McMahon’s singular season made it clear: No BYU QB has played at such a high level over an entire season. And he capped it off by leading the Cougars to an unbelievable comeback against a very good (and ranked) SMU team.
And that’s why McMahon’s 1980 season is the best one in BYU history.