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How quickly can BYU compete for Big 12 title? Utah shows a road map

BYU will need to get more depth, speed to challenge Big 12 talent

Brigham Young Cougars head coach Kalani Sitake waves to fans as he goes into the locker room.
Brigham Young Cougars head coach Kalani Sitake waves to fans as he goes into the locker room at the half as BYU and UAB play in the Radiance Technologies Independence Bowl in Shreveport, Louisiana on Saturday, Dec. 18, 2021.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

How difficult is it for a Utah-based college football team to win a Power Five conference title?

It took Utah 11 years.

How long will it take BYU to win a Big 12 football championship?

The Utes provide a road map.

Utah did it with what former athletic director Chris Hill said “having everyone get on the same page and go all in” at Utah. I took that to mean everyone from the university president down to the manager that hands out towels. Hill also spearheaded a program to raise more money, increase the football recruiting budget and upgrade facilities and salaries.

But as we’ve learned this season, it also takes things beyond the control of one single school. It takes a team like USC being down, opposing coaches working as lame ducks or simply leaving during the season, or opposing quarterbacks on the other team missing in action (Washington State, Stanford, Arizona and UCLA).

That should not take anything away from the Cam Rising-inspired Utes football team making it to the Rose Bowl, beating Oregon twice. Utah earned this. The Utes are by far the best Pac-12 team in 2021. Also, the uniting emotional element of losing two players to untimely deaths cannot be understated.

For BYU to win the Big 12 it would take the Big 12 not having Texas or Oklahoma in the league, and for similar league-balancing situations to crop up, just like they did in the Pac-12 for the Utes.

SEC-bound Oklahoma won seven of the past 10 Big 12 championships dating back to 2011. Once gone, who fills that void?

For Utah, many factors leaned the Utes’ way in 2021 to earn a title that regularly belongs to Oregon, Washington or USC. One oddsmaker last summer had Utah’s chances to win the Pac-12 as middle of the pack.

It takes a lot of hard work, tons of big plays, great recruiting and luck to win a P5 title.

Now, on to the nitty-gritty.

I asked Arizona sportswriter Greg Hansen to help break down the question. With four decades covering the Pac-12, he provides great insight into what it takes to win a Pac-12 title.

Then I turned to former BYU wide receiver Margin Hooks, now a training specialist for receivers in the Dallas area (Plano and Frisco, Texas), the heart of Big 12 football.

Hooks’ class of 2022 clients includes 30% of the top 50-ranked prep receivers by 247Sports. They include No. 2 five-star Evan Stewart at Liberty (signed with Texas A&M), No. 9 Caleb Burton (Ohio State), No. 24 Jordan Hudson (TCU), and No. 48 Nicholas Anderson, Katy High School (Oklahoma).

What will it take to compete in the Big 12, I asked Hooks? In one word, his answer was: speed.

Winning the Pac-12

Hansen, who writes for the Arizona Daily Star in Tucson, attended Utah State and is very familiar with Utah, BYU, both Pac-12 divisions, teams, coaches and stars.

He points to Cal to illustrate how tough it is to win the Pac-12 and put Utah’s decadeold fight to climb to No. 1 in perspective.

“Cal has not won the Pac-12 (or Pac-10 and Pac-8) since 1958. It has gone through 12 head coaches, including Tommy Holmoe, Bruce Snyder, Joe Kapp and Steve Mariucci,” said Hansen.

“It has had six quarterbacks drafted in the first-round — Aaron Rodgers, Jared Goff, Steve Bartkowski, Rich Campbell, Kyle Boller and Craig Morton — and still can’t break through and win the league. And that’s even while sitting on the rich recruiting turf of Northern California.”

Hansen then addresses the so-called Arizona curse.

“Arizona insists it has a football curse because it appeared to be bound for the Rose Bowl in 1986, 1993 and 1998 and yet always had one critical play knock it out of first place. In 1998, Arizona went 12-1 and still couldn’t win the Pac-10,” he said.

“The biggest issue is USC. When the Trojans are in an upcycle, it becomes ridiculously difficult. Same with Washington. The Huskies have the most involved fan base in the league and resources to match an SEC school. But when Oregon State had a historic 11-1 season under Dennis Erickson in 2000 and finished No. 4 in the AP poll, the Beavers could only tie Washington for the championship, and the Huskies had the Rose Bowl tiebreaker.”

In 2021, Utah easily overpowered league favorite Oregon not once but twice. Oregon upset Ohio State back in September. But as the league favorite, the Ducks also lost to the worst Stanford team since the one-win 2006 team 15 years ago. Oregon finished the season with its head coach racing out the Nike door to his hometown Miami.

Utah Utes players celebrate after they beat the Oregon Ducks in the Pac-12 championship game at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas on Friday, Dec. 3, 2021.
Utah Utes players celebrate after they beat the Oregon Ducks in the Pac-12 championship game at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas on Friday, Dec. 3, 2021.
Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

“The Utes have good timing if nothing else,” said Hansen. “Both UCLA and USC had ‘off decades’ since Utah entered the conference. Both finished in the AP Top 10 just once in that period with a seemingly endless string of hirings and firings of head coaches and coordinators.

“That’s all a credit to Utah and Kyle Whittingham, because neither Colorado, Arizona nor ASU could do more than win a single Pac-12 South title while the Trojans and Bruins struggled.”

Hansen has seen the skyline change in the Pac-12, literally. The fortresses being built in the league are impressive.

“After covering Pac-12 football since 1978, I think it’s more difficult now than ever to win the football championship,” he said. “Every school has rebuilt its stadium and spent tens of millions of dollars on football facilities since 2000. And with Lincoln Riley now at USC and Chip Kelly on an uptick at UCLA, the rest of the ’20s looks to me like it’ll become even harder, if that’s possible.”

Winning the Big 12

Many seasons ago I was talking with Brian Mitchell, a former BYU defensive back who played for Johnny Tusa at Waco High School and later the Atlanta Falcons. He coached at BYU, Texas Tech of the Big 12, then East Carolina, West Virginia, Virginia Tech and is currently the defensive backs coach at North Carolina State of the ACC.

Mitchell said the Big 12 doesn’t play defense. Offense, yes, but not much defense, thus, the big scores. Things may have evolved since that conversation with Mitchell, especially with the addition of TCU.

The most impressive thing Utah did when it entered the Pac-12 in 2010 is field the best defenses in that league. Physicality, toughness, aggression and forcing turnovers are Utes trademarks.

BYU is capable of recruiting big linemen, tight ends and linebackers. It will need to be far better loading up the defensive line and front seven, players that can impact a game and become a force in that league.

The status quo will not do.

Utah Utes defensive end Van Fillinger (7) and other defensive linemen practice for the upcoming Rose Bowl game against Ohio State at a field at Harbor College in Wilmington, Calif., on Tuesday, Dec. 28, 2021.
Utah Utes defensive end Van Fillinger (7) and other defensive linemen practice for the upcoming Rose Bowl game against Ohio State at a field at Harbor College in Wilmington, Calif., on Tuesday, Dec. 28, 2021.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

If BYU wants to make a mark in the Big 12, it has two years to get far better, deeper and more physical on defense than witnessed in losses to Boise State, Baylor and UAB. BYU needs size, strength, better depth and speed across the board.

Hooks said the first thing BYU needs to take on the Big 12 already happened in locking down head coach Kalani Sitake before the Independence Bowl. “The other thing is to get more speed,” he said.

Hooks remembers when he was at BYU, he was introduced to a great scheme, but he wasn’t taken into a situation that improved his receiver skills. “College coaches these days simply do not have the time to spend with players to develop them properly. They don’t get exposed to them enough. That’s why so many players are going to camps, individual trainers and learning their positions.”

Hooks said he is blown away with the high school receivers he trains and how talented they are. He said they are light years ahead of what he was when he played college football. He sees other trends with quarterbacks, linebackers and defensive backs.

BYU will need to recruit the right personnel and tap into the increased abilities at skill positions.

Hooks said BYU can compete toe-to-toe with the interior linebackers they have. But the field positions on the outside need more speed.

“The type of game that’s played today — the pace of the game, the up and down — BYU is not built to play that type of game right now,” he said. “BYU had a great running back this year and the receivers made an impact, but they have to have receivers that can take the top off a defense and that comes with speed. You have to stretch the field and BYU obviously needs more depth so they can absorb injuries.

“In my opinion, BYU isn’t that far off. They can come in and compete right away, even next year, but there is room for improvement to compete week in and week out in the Big 12.”

Hooks did coach two of BYU’s latest signees, Dominique McKenzie and his twin Marcus from St. George. Both have the speed Hooks claims BYU needs in the Big 12. Add in Corner Canyon’s Cody Hagen and Roy’s Parker Kingston and the Cougars did get some proven sprinters.

Hagen won the 6A state championship 100 and 200 meters. His 100-meter time was 10.75. Dominique McKenzie won both the 100 and 200 in 4A and his 100 time was 10.69. Both have personal records better than those numbers. Marcus McKenzie finished second in the sprints to his twin.

Pine View’s Marcus Mckenzie, left, and Dominique Mckenzie, right compete in the boys 200 meters 4A final at Davis High School in Kaysville on Saturday, May 22, 2021.
Pine View’s Marcus Mckenzie, left, and Dominique Mckenzie, right compete in the boys 200 meters 4A final at Davis High School in Kaysville on Saturday, May 22, 2021. The McKenzie brothers were originally committed to play football at Virginia before flipping to BYU.
Annie Barker, Deseret News

Sitake was at Utah when Kyle Whittingham was tasked with preparing the Utes for Pac-12 play. The switch was immediate from the Mountain West to that Power Five league and there were growing pains.

Sitake and offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick are both familiar with what Utah initially had to do in order to compete in the Pac-12.

BYU’s experiment with independence since 2010 has given BYU’s administration a better look at what it will take, especially with the seven P5 opponents faced this past season.

Hooks said BYU plays similar to Kansas State and K-State hasn’t won a Big 12 title. The Cougars have had success previously against Oklahoma and have a winning record against Texas, but that isn’t playing those types of teams week in and week out.

“When I saw the BYU game with Baylor, I saw some speed, but Baylor had more depth in the trenches and kind of manhandled them,” Hooks said. “I know they had injuries (BYU), but you have to be able to rotate people in and keep them fresh. Once you are thin, it really hurts at that level of play.”

The new Big 12 will include three huge recruiting battlegrounds for speed in Central Florida, Houston, and Cincinnati. Houston is a hotbed for all conferences as a remarkable well of skilled talent.

The Cougars will need to be far more effective in selling their brand in Texas, a once fertile recruiting field in the ’90s for BYU that produced the likes of Derwin Gray, Brian Mitchell and Patrick Mitchell as well as Heisman winner Ty Detmer.

Utah has done exactly that since 2010.