With first-round NFL draft pick Zach Wilson and more than a dozen other key contributors moving on, coupled with what was supposed to be one of the most difficult schedules since it went independent in 2011, BYU was in for a rebuilding season in 2021, most prognosticators agreed.
Somebody forgot to tell the Cougars.
Through 10 games — played in 10 weeks without a break, no less — coach Kalani Sitake’s Cougars have overachieved, by almost any measure.
Throw in the fact that they lost arguably their best defensive player — linebacker Keenan Pili — for the season in their third game and had to play two games without starting quarterback Jaren Hall, and BYU’s ascension to the top 15 of the College Football Playoff rankings is nothing short of remarkable.
Sitting at 8-2 and ranked No. 14 in The Associated Press Top 25 and No. 15 in the USA Today/Amway Coaches Poll, BYU is idle this week, so now seems like a good time to assess its progress and provide a snapshot of how it has exceeded expectations.
“Ten weeks (playing) in a row was really tough, but these guys handled it really well,” Sitake said after the Cougars routed Idaho State 59-14 in the only easy game of the 10-game gauntlet.
Given the chance during Monday’s press briefing to crow a little about how his program has succeeded this season despite the usual wave of injuries to key starters that has tested its depth in virtually every game, Sitake demurred.
“Listen, we are going to keep working hard, stay humble, stay hungry,” he said. “There is always room for improvement. We haven’t done it yet. There are still more games to go, so all we have earned is another game together.”
That 13th game together — the bowl game — and the 12th against the Pac-12’s USC on Nov. 27 in the Los Angeles Coliseum is what is driving the Cougars to finish the task in what should go down as one of Sitake’s best coaching jobs in his six seasons.
“The feeling of being accomplished and feeling that we are done (progressing), I don’t think that is ever going to happen,” Sitake said. “That stuff only generates complacency. We will let you guys pat us on the back, but we will (ignore it) and focus on improving.”
Do the players think they’ve overachieved? Not really. Sitake’s culture of love and learning has been imbedded deeply, from stars such as Hall and running back Tyler Allgeier to backup defensive back Matthew Criddle.
“Through 10 games, we can’t be disappointed with our record. We’ve had a lot of injuries, a lot of difficulties that way,” Criddle said. “Overall, I would say our team is in a good spot with the bye week coming up.”
Far from satisfied
“I don’t feel like we will skip a beat (after the bye),” said defensive lineman Uriah Leiataua. “We feel like we control our own destiny with how all the rankings and stuff are going and all. If we continue to play really well, we will have a shot, hopefully.”
Actually, the Cougars will need some help to reach their ultimate goal — a New Year’s Six bowl — but they can always dream, can’t they? It has worked so far. Not many thought they would even be in the discussion before the season started, and even fewer were on the bandwagon when they struggled in Las Vegas to beat Arizona in the opener.
That 26-17 win over Utah in Week 2 continues to look better and better as the Utes (6-3) work their way to a probable berth in the Pac-12 championship game and potential Rose Bowl invitation. The Cougars have also defeated the Pac-12 South’s second-place team, 6-3 Arizona State, and the Pac-12 North’s second-place Washington State (5-4), along with the second-place team in the ACC’s Coastal Division, 6-3 Virginia.
“We’re appreciative of the players and the fans, and just the opportunity to be a part of this great program and organization and all the people that have put so much into it,” defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki said Monday on his “Coordinators’ Corner” program. “Our players have done so much for us as coaches, as fans. And what the fans have done, too, is great. They have packed the place and traveled well everywhere we have gone. It has been a phenomenal season so far.”
A highly unscientific, but telling, Twitter poll conducted by Cougarstats.com found that 76% of 299 respondents believe the Cougars have over performed this season, and fewer than 1% say they’ve underperformed. Even a fanbase with high expectations that at times has been accused of being a bit delusional is happy, it appears. So that’s something.
After an 8-2 start and a 5-1 record against P5 teams, BYU has— CougarStats (@CougarStats) November 8, 2021
“There is definitely a lot of room for improvement. But the fact that we are a pretty young team, and we have played a lot of young guys this season, I’m pleased,” Sitake said. “I think we are in a really good spot now. Ten weeks in a row is not easy, especially when you are playing a lot of teams that we played, and the physical football that we saw.”
After the bye, the Cougars will travel to Statesboro, Georgia, to take on Georgia Southern of the Sun Belt Conference. The Eagles were close to having 25,000-seat Paulson Stadium sold out on Tuesday, they said on social media.
“For us, the goal is to just keep working on what is ahead of us,” Sitake said. “Our culture is built on love and learning, and those are two things that don’t have a ceiling to them.”
Here’s a closer look at how the season has gone so far:
Where they rank
Humans have respected what the Cougars have done, ranking them in the teens in the three major polls (media, coaches, CFP committee) despite the losses to teams (Boise State and Baylor) that were unranked when they played them.
The computers haven’t been as nice. ESPN’s CFB Power Index has BYU at No. 42. Jeff Sagarin’s College Football Ratings has BYU at No. 28, and the Cougars’ schedule strength, despite them having played six Power Five opponents, at No. 50.
BYU’s Nov. 27 opponent USC is No. 50 in ESPN’s FPI and No. 54 in Sagarin, so even a win over the Trojans at what some say will be the largest gathering of BYU fans outside the state of Utah won’t do much for BYU’s standing with the robots.
The CFP ranking is a nice honor for the players, offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick said.
“They have been winning a lot of games, but we know we have to keep winning to have it mean anything,” Roderick said. “It’s nice to be acknowledged like that for their efforts, though.”
What the offensive statistics say
Against a markedly easier schedule last year, BYU lived in the top 25 of most statistical rankings in building an 11-1 season and final No. 11 ranking in the AP poll.
Having played 10 games (most teams have played nine), the Cougars are better offensively than they are defensively, the numbers show. They are No. 29 in scoring offense (33.3 ppg.) and No. 61 in scoring defense, giving up 24.3 points per game.
Sitake, Roderick and Tuiaki talk extensively about the importance of ball security — four turnovers are the reason they lost to Boise State — and getting takeaways, and the numbers bear that out. BYU is tied for sixth in turnover margin at plus-10, having gained 19 and lost nine.
“To be plus-10 right now is a big reason why we are winning,” Tuiaki said.
After a bit of a slow start — facing the stout defenses of Utah and ASU contributed — BYU’s offense has caught fire lately, just as Roderick said it would.
The Cougars have zoomed to No. 26 in total offense (451.3 ypg) and are No. 7 in total first downs, with 233, albeit in one more game than most teams have played.
They are balanced — 45th in rushing offense and 34th in passing offense — and efficient, ranking 14th in team passing efficiency (160.72) and 13th in third-down conversion percentage — 48% (58 of 121).
Three quarterbacks have seen action, but the Cougars have thrown only three interceptions, tied for sixth nationally. The offensive line is protecting well, as BYU has given up just 1.3 sacks per game (23rd).
“We have a young team that is getting a lot of valuable experience playing all these P5 teams we have been playing this year. We are growing and getting better every week. The future is bright,” Roderick said. “There are a lot of good players that are going to be back.”
What the defensive statistics say
Throw out the second quarter against Virginia and the entire game against Baylor, and the Cougars defense has been really good, all things considered. That they held Utah, Utah State and Boise State far below their season scoring averages in rivalry games is noteworthy.
The Cougars are 81st in total defense, allowing 397.6 yards per game.
“We have a lot of guys who have stepped up and are doing a good job and sacrificing a lot for us to win these games,” Tuiaki said. “We will just continue on with who we got and the guys who are practicing, and when guys get back we will get them going.”
Expected stars such as Pili, Chaz Ah You, Lorenzo Fauatea and George Udo have missed significant time, and the Cougars have kept rolling. That’s impressive.
The Cougars are 62nd in rushing defense (146.0) and 97th in passing yards allowed (251.6).
They are just 99th in sacks, getting 1.7 per game, the result of their bend-but-don’t-break philosophy that has served them well, for the most part.
“The amount of P5 teams we have played, and battled with, has been a good experience for us in these last three years,” Tuiaki said. “We will continue to recruit (hard) and get to where we need to be. But we love our players, love how hard they are battling. We will continue to put a good product on the field with the type of kids that we have.”
Players of the year (so far)
Sure, there are still three games to play, but let’s stop a second and acknowledge a few players who have contributed mightily to BYU’s 8-2 record.
Offense: The offensive player of the year has to be Allgeier, who has rushed for 1,162 yards and 17 touchdowns in 2021 to date. He’s tied for seventh in career touchdowns with Lakei Heiumuli (1983-86).
Allgeier, perhaps the only Cougar who will be drafted in April, assuming he turns pro, is No. 9 in career rushing yards for BYU with 2,460. He needs 359 to break into the top five.
Defense: Naming a defensive player of the year to date is tough, considering Pili went down early and Tuiaki’s crew is sort of the “no-name defense,” with few bonafide playmakers among the ranks.
We will go with linebacker Payton Wilgar, who is second on the team with 54 tackles and the only player with multiple interceptions besides safety Malik Moore, who has three.
Special teams: Punter Ryan Rehkow is the easy choice here. The sophomore is averaging 48.5 yards per punt on 33 punts, which would rank him fourth in the country if he had enough attempts to qualify.
Play of the year: No summary of the first 10 games is complete without mentioning the play of the year, perhaps the play of the Cougars’ first 11 years of independence. Of course, that would be Allgeier’s chase down and strip of ASU’s Merlin Robertson after Robertson had intercepted Hall and was threatening to take the pick to the house. Hall recovered the fumble, and BYU went on to a 27-17 win.