Regardless of which bowl they go to, or how they do in said postseason game, the BYU Cougars’ 2021 football season has to be considered a rousing success.
By almost any measure, the independent Cougars have overachieved this year, posting a 10-2 record against a schedule that included seven Power Five programs, three teams playing in their conference championship games (Utah, Utah State and Baylor) this weekend, and rising to a No. 12 ranking in The Associated Press Top 25 and a No. 13 ranking in the College Football Playoff rankings.
It’s time to start calling head coach Kalani Sitake a candidate for coach of the year, especially now that USC and Washington have filled their vacancies and fans don’t have to worry about the popular Polynesian leaving as much as they did a few weeks ago.
Why Sitake for COY?
BYU went 6-1 against P5 foes, losing only to No. 9 Baylor, 38-24, in Waco, Texas. The Cougars’ only other loss was to 7-5 Boise State, 26-17 in Provo, a loss that stung then and will probably continue to sting for years as the Cougars uncharacteristically committed four turnovers.
BYU fans will rue that setback forever, especially if their team isn’t invited to a New Year’s Six bowl game because of it. But this time, they can’t blame the coaches. BYU’s players simply coughed the ball up too many times. That one’s on them.
A new set of rankings will be released Tuesday, and the Cougars could climb to No. 12, perhaps No. 11, after they improved to 5-0 against the Pac-12 last Saturday with a 35-31 win over an emotional USC team playing on Senior Night at the Coliseum, and for bowl eligibility.
Still not a believer?
Think of it this way: If someone had told you that BYU would win 10 regular-season games against this schedule — granted, only the 66th most difficult in the country, according to the Sagarin Ratings, as a lot of opponents ended up underachieving — after losing Zach Wilson and four other key contributors from last year’s 11-1 team to the NFL draft, and eight more who went the free agency route, would you have believed them?
Throw in the fact that the Cougars played most, or several, games without starters/best defensive players such as cornerback Keenan Ellis, linebackers Keenan Pili, Payton Wilgar and Chaz Ah You and defensive lineman Lorenzo Fauatea, and the feat becomes even more impressive.
Offensively, stars such as quarterback Jaren Hall, tight end Masen Wake, receivers Neil Pau’u and Gunner Romney and offensive linemen James Empey, Harris LaChance and Campbell Barrington have missed games due to injury.
The latest star to go down was tight end Isaac Rex, who sustained a serious ankle injury against USC and posted a post-surgery photo of himself on Instagram on Sunday to relay the message that his season is over, too. Fittingly, the depth that Sitake has been so heck-bent on developing showed up in the Coliseum. Walk-ons and one- and two-star guys outplayed USC’s four- and five-star guys.
Depth does the job
It was a sight to behold — even as the Cougars committed two turnovers to USC’s none. Coaching carried them on a night when they didn’t have their best stuff.
Unsung players such as tight end Dallin Holker, running back Jackson McChesney and former defensive walk-ons Matthew Criddle, Jacob Boren and Hayden Livingston were among the leaders in tackles. Role players who were at their competitive best when their best was needed, as John Wooden used to say.
In many ways, the Cougars have posted consecutive double-digit win seasons for the first time since four-in-a-row from 2006-09 with smoke and mirrors. They might not have had a defender on the field who could have started for USC, but somehow they held the Trojans to 31 points — below their season average.
“Sometimes I look out there on the field when the defense is playing and I see five or six guys (who were second- and third-stringers when the season began) making big plays,” said Hall, who is pushing superstar running back Tyler Allgeier for unofficial offensive player of the year honors. “The defense has been slept on a lot, from the outside.”
Still a longshot
Let’s not fool ourselves. Sitake won’t get much attention outside the Intermountain West for his success this season. He’s been overshadowed by Utah’s Kyle Whittingham and others who have dealt with some heart-wrenching off-the-field issues adeptly and honorably. And that’s OK. The former Cougar gladly deflects praise to his mentors, such as Whittingham and the late LaVell Edwards, who was on his mind at the Coliseum Saturday night.
Sitake almost teared up when he was asked a question about Edwards’ influence on him.
“I wish he were still alive,” Sitake said, somberly.
Also, coaching awards usually go to coaches at higher-profile programs, or coaches who made major turnarounds, like what Blake Anderson has done at USU. But what Sitake and his staff have done this year shouldn’t go unnoticed.
It was obvious Saturday night that USC had far more talent, but BYU had far more discipline, want-to and team chemistry.
“I think this (USC win) might be their best win of the season, and I think this has been maybe the best coaching job I have seen out of BYU in a long, long time, because of those injuries, and because the injuries stacked up over the course of the season,” ESPN college football analyst Trevor Matich said on BYUtv’s “BYU Sports Nation” program Monday.
One of those coaching moves was to make the 6-foot-1, 205-pound Hall the starter from Day 1, and the fourth-year sophomore has delivered a fantastic season. Hall struggled a bit against the Trojans, throwing two interceptions, but otherwise has performed admirably even as key pass-catchers such as Romney and Pau’u and key blockers such as Empey and LaChance have been out of the lineup.
“I am really proud of what he’s been able to do,” Sitake said.
Culture is real, and so is Sitake
Whittingham, while certainly deserving of the mentions for his work off the field after the tragic deaths of two players, and even on it for guiding the Utes to the best record in the Pac-12 South Division, made the wrong starting QB decision in August and it might have cost the 9-3 Utes a couple of wins in September.
The culture of love and learning that Sitake has instilled at BYU isn’t just something catchy to say at news conferences, like slogans of the past such as “Band of Brothers” and “Quest for Perfection” and the ever-redundant “Rise Up.” Is there another way to rise?
Sitake’s culture is as real and genuine as the man himself.
“Yeah, Kalani is like a big brother to me. When I signed with Bronco (Mendenhall), I viewed Bronco as a mentor, like an older, father figure kind of guy,” said fifth-year senior defensive end Uriah Leiataua. “But with Kalani, I was wrong. He is like an older brother to me. I love how he always checks up on me. He always cares about how life is going.
“I will be real with you,” Leiataua continued. “I haven’t talked to Kalani about football as much as personal stuff, life stuff, job stuff, career things, NFL stuff. It has been all ‘me’ stuff. That’s one thing I really appreciate about Kalani. He cares about me as a person.”
That caring attitude has translated into one of BYU’s top 10 football seasons of all time.
Even former BYU players who didn’t play for him have been impressed.
“He’s got some incredible momentum, some incredible talent, and I think the best years are really ahead of the BYU football program, especially if he stays,” said former quarterback Matt Berry. “I know LaVell had many opportunities to leave, and stuck around. It strikes me that this is a lifetime event for Kalani, and that’s great for us fans.”
Former linebacker Brady Poppinga, never one to hide his true thoughts and feelings, said Sitake has been so successful that fans should be legitimately worried about losing him.
“I know BYU (officials) will give him the best possible offer to stay around,” Poppinga said. “With Big 12 money kicking in, they are going to be able to make him a pretty lucrative deal in comparison to what he is making now.”
Poppinga said BYU football could survive without Sitake, but given the relatively shallow pool of replacements, it would be best for all parties involved if they keep him in Provo.
“Ideally, we would like him to stay, because he is very likable and knows what BYU is,” Poppinga said.
Among the other accomplishments for BYU football and Sitake this season:
• BYU’s invitation to join the Big 12 didn’t come solely because of the football team’s success, but it didn’t hurt. Recruiting has been on the uptick, too, a combination of that aforementioned invite and the Cougars going 21-3 the past two seasons.
• The 26-17 win over Utah, a win that simply got more and more impressive as the season wore on as the Utes won the Pac-12 South. Ending Utah’s nine-game winning streak in the rivalry gave Sitake enough capital with the fanbase to last five years.
• Going 5-0 against the Pac-12, then refusing to gloat over it when others were calling the Cougars the unofficial Pac-12 champions.
“We are not going to get into that stuff,” he said. “We have too much respect for football and for this conference to make statements like that. We are always going to try to be classy with the way we handle things.”
That’s pure Sitake.
• Winning the Battle for the Old Wagon Wheel against Utah State. Don’t laugh. A loss to the resurgent Aggies in Logan that night would have been devastating. The Cougars showed amazing resiliency, winning the game with second- and third-string quarterbacks Baylor Romney and Jacob Conover.
• Getting the better of Bronco’s new team. The need for comebacks has been rare the past two seasons, but when the Cougars needed one, they rose and got the job done. Trailing Virginia 42-38 at halftime and looking totally inept on defense against the Cavs’ high-flying offense, the Cougars made all the right adjustments in the second half. They held UVa to seven points in the second half and cruised to the 66-49 win.
Defensive adjustments also led to wins against Georgia Southern and Washington State when the Cougars looked out of sync early.
And that’s why Sitake needs more love for the job he did in Provo this year.