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Why is BYU 5-1 against Power Five teams that enjoy recruiting advantages?

BYU’s five-year average rank in recruiting is 74th, far worse than Utah, Arizona State, Virginia and Washington State. So how are the Cougars winning all these games?

BYU Cougars head coach Kalani Sitake and players begin to celebrate a a win over Utah on Sept. 11, 2021. BYU won 26-17.
BYU coach Kalani Sitake and the rest of the BYU sideline begin celebrating their victory over Utah at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021. BYU won 26-17, ending a nine-game losing streak to the Utes.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Is BYU a turkey trying to fly with eagles or do the Cougars have a little falcon in them?

Kalani Sitake and his staff really should be given far more credit for this 5-1 record against Power Five teams this season.

Today, the Cougars stand 7-2 and are ranked No. 17 by The Associated Press, having been as high as No 10.

Shake it up any way you want, that is a tremendous feat.

The elements to look at could include recruiting, coaching, player development, team culture, facilities, schedule, resources, coaching salaries, injuries, whatever ...

Last Saturday in LaVell Edwards Stadium, BYU posted 66 points on Virginia, the most ever scored on a P5 team by a Cougars squad. It was also the most points ever scored on a Bronco Mendenhall team. Ever.

You can break this down many ways, but just for laughs, let’s do it by one matrix: recruiting. We will use the 247Sports.com star ranking system, which calibrates prospects and assigns points and a ranking.

Kirby Smart, head coach of No. 1 ranked Georgia, places a premium on recruiting. In this piece, he explains how you cannot outcoach recruiting. “It’s 25% evaluation, 50% recruiting, and another 25% is going to be coaching, but if you don’t recruit, you’ve got no chance.”

If that’s true, why is BYU beating teams that outrecruited them, specifically four Pac-12 teams?

The 10-year BYU average ranking is 66. Those include the last five years ranked at 72nd (2021), 76th (2020), 81st (2019), 78th (2018), and the very highest recruiting class in those five years, 66th in 2017. The last five years, BYU’s average ranking is 74th.

Remember that number: Average BYU ranking in 10 years is 66th.

When BYU lined up against Virginia, the Cavaliers had a 10-year average recruiting ranking by 247Sports.com at 48. The last five years included No. 32 (2021), 48th (2020), 34th (2019), 59th (2018), and 58th (2017).

BYU won 66-49.

Against Washington State in Pullman the week before, this Pac-12 team, which is second in the league’s North Division, had recruiting classes of 44th (2017), 56th (2020, 65th (2019), 45th (2018), and 44th (2017). The WSU 10-year average is 54th.

Sitake’s team won 21-19.

When BYU took on Pac-12 South co-favorite Arizona State the third week of the season, the Sun Devils, under Herm Edwards, enjoyed a significant advantage in talent. Although the staff is under a cloud of NCAA scrutiny, the players they had came from a 10-year average ranked class of 33. The last five classes, starting in 2017 were 32nd, 37th, 31st, 24th and 53rd.

Sitake’s team won 27-17.

The University of Utah was pegged to finish second in the Pac-12 South in the preseason poll, but are now the favorite to represent the division in the Pac-12 championship game in Las Vegas, holding a lead in the division and all the tie-breakers.

Kyle Whittingham’s Utes 10-year recruiting rank average is 31st, right in line with ASU. Beginning in 2017 the Ute recruiting classes ranked 33rd, 33rd, 45th, 29th and 31st.

Sitake’s team ended a nine-game losing streak in the series and won, 26-17.

In the season opener in Las Vegas against a struggling Arizona team, the Wildcats came in with a losing streak and three coaching changes in the past decade. But the Wildcats still possessed a ranked recruiting advantage over BYU, albeit the 10-year average was 61.

Arizona’s recruit rank beginning in the class of 2021 was 77th, 62nd, 56th, 61, and 45th. When BYU’s highest-ranked recruit class in 10 years is 66th, that isn’t even close to the best by Arizona in a decade, 45th.

Sitake’s team won 24-16.

So, let’s get this straight. Recruiting is considered one of the most important factors in college football success. If you don’t have the horses, it’s tough to pull ahead and win down the straightaway.

What gives?

Jon Wilner, who covers the Pac-12 for The Mercury News, picked BYU to lose all five matchups with the Pac-12 this year. There is one remaining, a trip to Los Angeles to play USC in the regular-season finale, and the Cougars are 4-0 vs. the Pac-12.

Wilner said he wasn’t aware that he did that until he reviewed it later. At the time of his column and prediction, he was just going down each team’s schedule and picking winners and losers and it just happened that it turned out that way. He owned up to it, however.

Wilner gave his reasons why BYU’s edge this season has turned out the way it has, that Arizona is terrible and lost to Northern Arizona; Utah was playing the wrong quarterback; ASU had discipline problems with 16 penalties; and WSU had just lost its head coach and four assistant coaches.

Wilner concludes, “... it’s clear to me that some, if not most Pac-12 teams were simply not ready for the quality competition earlier in the season. Why? Because of the truncated 2020 season.”

BYU held a normal training camp and played 12 games last year. Pac-12 teams didn’t start camp until October, and many played less than half a season (Utah: five games; ASU: four games).

That’s a fair assessment from a Pac-12 expert, explaining the league losses.

On the other side, BYU had lost its 2020 QB to the No. 2 pick in the NFL draft, plus other key stars.

The Cougars didn’t ease into 2021 after the strange COVID-19 season in which they were criticized for not playing any P5 teams in an 11-1 season. BYU started off playing four P5s in September, while everyone in the Pac-12 but USC had penciled in maybe just one tough opponent the first three weeks, like Oregon vs. Ohio State.

BYU’s 5-1 record over P5s today remains one of the best P5 records in the country. In the win against Virginia, the Cougars played six walk-ons or former walk-ons on defense when the Cavaliers were racing up and down the field in the second quarter.

In that Virginia game, BYU’s only four-star defensive recruit in the starting lineup this season, linebacker/safety Chaz Ah You, did not suit up.

Recruiting? Talent? How big of a difference does it make?

A huge one. You can’t create natural speed and strength and size.

BYU getting Samson Nacua (Utah) and Puka Nacua (Washington) has proved significant. But so has player development when you look at linebacker Payton Wilgar and running back Tyler Allgeier. Both are former walk-ons — both paid their own way and both almost quit after a year.

I remember a long time ago asking former USU head coach, then-current BYU assistant coach Chris Pella, about the overachieving element of BYU football players, many of whom were not highly recruited.

His answer, I know, will make many cringe, but when he said it, he meant it as a real difference-making factor in coaching.

“For the most part, they are a bunch of high-character guys who are smart, disciplined, responsible, accountable and very coachable,” Pella said.

Jeff Hansen, editor of Cougar Sports Insider, part of the 247Sports network, explains that BYU’s talent pool is different but explainable.

“For the most part, the anchors of BYU’s roster have been guys who had P5 options out of high school. Guys like D’Angelo Mandell, Keenan Pili, Puka Nacua, Gunner Romney, Jaren Hall, Blake Freeland, etc. When they have played, they have been relied on to lead BYU’s roster and they have performed exceptionally well.

“Sprinkle in former walk-ons like Tyler Allgeier, Payton Wilgar and Gabe Summers, and BYU has a really good foundation. This team is experienced and they are showing that 2020 was not a fluke. Many of the P5 teams they have played against had shortened or nearly nonexistent 2020 seasons. BYU is crisper, more disciplined and more prepared than those teams. Couple that with the leadership of the roster, and it’s a great combination for BYU. “

Like Wilner, Hansen pointed out BYU has played P5 teams with unique situations. Arizona had a new head coach; Utah started a new quarterback and had lost freshman sensation Ty Jordan to an accidental gunshot accident in December 2020; ASU had a limited coaching staff due to recruiting violations; WSU had no head coach; and Virginia had emotions with Bronco Mendenhall returning to his first head coaching job venue.

Anthony Treash, senior college analyst for Pro Football Focus out of Cincinnati, said once you get in a certain range of college recruiting, the difference is marginal.

“Once you get out of the top 25 and it gets to comparing mostly three-stars and maybe a few four-stars between teams, it’s close to the same. At that point, the recruiting status kind of goes to moot.

“That said, BYU has no doubt excelled in player development and ensured they have no clear liability on either side of the ball, whereas other programs have been playing with a notable hole that’s holding the team back (i.e. UVA’s inconsistent coverage, Wazzu’s boom-or-bust pass O + coaching, ASU’s inability to consistently throw downfield, Utah was in a bad spot at QB when BYU played them and Arizona is a bit of a mess at every position as they returned very little players with proven production at the collegiate level.”

So, if you weigh how important recruiting is, you can make a case that this is a very unique and important successful run for the 7-2 Cougars. It takes circumstances and unique effort, and player development has to be a part of it. And, if critics are correct, BYU’s run in the Pac-12 comes as the result of a boatload of valid excuses from Pac-12 programs.

Sitake and assistant head coach Ed Lamb have both declared BYU’s recruiting is centered on a developmental approach — finding guys who have measurables and upsides and can grow into playmakers. Case in point is Allgeier, who was not highly recruited but today ranked No. 1 in the country in rushing touchdowns (16) and is No. 3 in rushing yards with 1,127.

“The stars (recruiting ranking) are great when we can achieve them. Obviously it makes the coaching staff look good and makes the program look good,” Lamb said on BYUtv’s “Coordinator’s Corner” on Monday.

“But the thing that we want to achieve more than anything else is the best players that we can find that also have the highest upside. Tyler was one of those guys regardless (of star ranking), as is a lot of our recruiting class.”

Lamb said running back and defensive back are positions BYU struggled to recruit because there are not that many highly skilled athletes at those positions in the state of Utah. “So, we have to sometimes go and find guys with upside that we can develop and it’s a great picture. But there are other guys too that are just like that.

“When we recruited (offensive tackle) Blake Freeland, he was a quarterback and when we offered him we had no intention of playing him in the offensive line much less something like a tight end. So to see guys become something in college that other coaching staffs maybe didn’t see, and have that kind of success? It’s just been so fun to watch and Tyler, the attitude that he brings on a daily basis, is an example to everybody in our program.”

Circumstances, luck, breaks, injuries, coaching effectiveness and continuity is all a part of college football. BYU’s defense would be far better with Pili (lost for the season), tackle Lorenzo Fauatea (injured) and offensive tackle Harris LaChance (out most of the season).

The Cougars are 18-3 the past two seasons and that is a sign of momentum for Sitake as the program readies to shift from independence to the Big 12.

That is more than luck and circumstance.