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Cougars enjoyed solid season, and there is reason for optimism

Brigham Young Cougars head coach Kalani Sitake celebrates after getting doused by players during the Michigan State Spartans game  in East Lansing, MI on Saturday, Oct. 8, 2016. BYU won 31-14.
Brigham Young Cougars head coach Kalani Sitake celebrates after getting doused by players during the Michigan State Spartans game in East Lansing, MI on Saturday, Oct. 8, 2016. BYU won 31-14.
Jeffrey D. Allred,

BYU’s highly anticipated and eventful regular season is in the books. It’s time to assess the results. What just happened?

Well, for one thing, they survived The Killer schedule. As early as last season it was the subject of much discussion. The schedule was loaded, it was believed.

The truth was a different matter.

The schedule didn’t live up to its billing, and this is relevant when evaluating the season. It was ranked among the most difficult in the nation when the season began, but schedules are only as good as their opponents perform during the season.

The composite record of BYU’s opponents: 66-76.

According to the Jeff Sagarin Ratings — which is used by USA Today — BYU’s schedule ranked 67th in the country. It wasn’t even the most difficult schedule in the state — Utah’s was 35th (in fairness, though, Utah benefitted from playing USC when the Trojans were a bad team (1-3); the next week USC began an eight-game winning streak, which boosted Utah’s strength-of-schedule rating).

BYU played a bunch of schools with name recognition — Arizona, Utah, UCLA, West Virginia, Michigan State, Mississippi State, Boise State — but few of them lived up to their reputations. Only five of BYU’s 12 opponents finished with winning records.

The Cougars ranked 31st in the Sagarin Ratings (Utah is 30th). Every team ranked ahead of BYU played a more difficult schedule, except two (Western Michigan and Houston).

It’s not BYU’s fault its opponents flopped, but it did put the results in perspective. The Cougars didn’t beat a single team ranked in the top 50, according to Sagarin. For that matter, they beat only two teams that posted winning records and one of them was 6-5 Southern Utah, an FCS school.

Yes, as everyone is quick to note, they lost close games — four by a total of eight points — but they also won close games — three by a total of 11 points.

Still, an 8-4 season is a solid debut for the new coaching staff. They kept the Cougars together after a 1-3 start to win seven of the last eight. BYU’s Sagarin ranking is eight places better than last year and 25 places better than the year before that. Only once in the past five years has BYU been ranked higher (26th in 2012).

Rookie head coach Kalani Sitake and his staff didn’t approach the job with any of the timidity you might expect from a group so untested at this level. Rather than play it safe and go for the tying PAT kick at the end of the Utah game, they elected to go for a two-point conversion and were stopped on a predictable quarterback draw. Then there was the fake punt from their own end zone against Boise State. OK, there’s daring and then there’s, well, what was that anyway?

The offense never really caught fire, certainly not by BYU standards. The Cougars tried to have it both ways with Taysom Hill, their star-crossed quarterback. They made the right call to give him the starting job at the start of the season — after all, he was a returning Heisman candidate who had overcome his third season-ending injury to return for a sixth season — but then they tied his hands, or rather his legs. Because of Hill’s remarkable injury history, the Cougars played it safe and limited his running game. His season-ending injury in the final game would seem to justify this, but running is what Hill does best and he was rarely effective.

Instead, they tried to make him a pocket passer, but he was a poor fit for the role. His pass efficiency rating was 116.9. Of the 108 quarterbacks with at least 200 passing attempts this season, he ranked 96th. In the history of BYU football, there are 36 quarterbacks who have attempted at least 160 passes in a season — only Jake Heaps, as a true freshman, had a worse rating, 116.2. If you don’t understand the pass efficiency rating, here are the key numbers: 12 touchdown passes to 11 interceptions, 6.2 yards per attempt.

No one can argue that Hill isn’t athletic or courageous, but he is not a quarterback who can carry a team with his passing. With even an average passing game, BYU would have won more games this season. The Cougars leaned on the running of Jamaal Williams, who was on record pace until an ankle injury cost him much of the last month of the season.

The bottom line is that BYU had a solid season, especially given the off-season turmoil of Hill’s uncertain future and the overhauling of the coaching staff. Next year, offensive coordinator Ty Detmer will have a quarterback more suited to his offense — Tanner Mangum — and the coaching staff can recruit the players they need to complete the transition to the new offensive system. Sitake and his team gave reason for optimism in the future.