Quest for validation? Previewing BYU’s 2021 season — and predicting the outcome of all 12 games
Cougars can show their 2020 season in which they went 11-1 was no fluke with another solid showing in 2021, but it won’t be easy as seven Power Five opponents dot the schedule
Remember the “Quest for Perfection”?
That was one of the many slogans that former BYU football coach Bronco Mendenhall came up with to frame an upcoming football season for the Cougars, and perhaps the mantra most panned by the media throughout the successful coach’s tenure in Provo.
BYU’s football team has not yet assigned a theme to this year’s season, according to defensive lineman Uriah “Lopa” Leiataua, after the Cougars adopted the “Love One Another” attitude last year in response to social unrest happening across the country.
So here’s our suggestion: “Quest for Validation.”
“I don’t think there is anything to prove from last year. We have moved on to this year already, and guys are just focusing on trying to perform at their best against Arizona. That’s the focus.” — BYU football coach Kalani Sitake.
Why? Because the 2021 season will either validate what the Cougars were able to accomplish last year when they went 11-1 and finished No. 11 in the country against a laughably weak schedule not of their own choosing, or tear that success asunder.
Has BYU turned the corner and returned to being a perennial top-25 program, or was 2020 a one-off product of a suspect schedule and little else?
Even if nobody associated with the team wants to say as much, that’s what the 2021 season — which begins Saturday in Las Vegas with an ESPN-televised game against Arizona — is all about. It is arguably the most important season in coach Kalani Sitake’s six-year tenure in terms of how BYU is viewed nationally.
Were the Cougars a one-hit wonder, or a program about to hit its stride?
For their part, BYU’s coaches aren’t buying into the need for validation, other than using what outsiders say about last year as a way to keep their players hungry and motivated.
“I don’t think there is anything to prove from last year,” Sitake said Monday. “We have moved on to this year already, and guys are just focusing on trying to perform at their best against Arizona. That’s the focus.”
There’s no doubt, though, that the returning players have heard the whispers. They know what is at stake, even if more than 15 solid contributors from the Zach Wilson-led magical season have departed.
“You know, we are not, like, Amish people. We read the internet and stuff. … The defensive line gets really insulted by some of this stuff. I think all of us are just itching to get out there. We are ready.” — Lopa Leiataua
“You know, we are not, like, Amish people,” Leiataua said. “We read the internet and stuff. … The defensive line gets really insulted by some of this stuff. I think all of us are just itching to get out there. We are ready.”
Added running back Tyler Allgeier: “Hearing that (last year was a fluke) is good for motivation. Obviously, we lost a lot of key players, but I think we have the pieces to the puzzle and we will be ready for the season. … Honestly, I think a lot of guys have a chip on their shoulder.”
First-year offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick agrees with Sitake — that this is a different year, a different team, and it should be judged on its own merits — but he has repeatedly acknowledged since spring camp began last March that nothing short of another outstanding season will quiet the naysayers.
“I just keep reminding our players that a lot of people say that stuff doesn’t count,” Roderick said on his “Coordinators’ Corner” program Monday. “I will still argue that that schedule was as difficult as anything the (BYU) teams in the ’80s and ’90s played. But our players have been hearing for a full year that it didn’t count. Now we get to go prove it. And if we can go prove something like that against this schedule, we can say for sure that we accomplished something.”
The big question becomes this: Is this BYU team, breaking in a new quarterback, a couple new offensive linemen, and an inexperienced defense at the front (defensive line) and back ends (safeties) capable of flourishing against a schedule that includes seven Power Five programs and Boise State?
We will see.
Sitake says it is, although he would never throw out a win total that would be satisfactory to him and BYU’s fan base. A disciple of the late LaVell Edwards, that’s just not his way. The words “quest for perfection” would never cross his lips.
“I mean, I really like our depth,” Sitake said. “I like what we have seen through fall camp, the chemistry on our team, the connection they have to each other and also to the fan base. My expectations are for my guys to perform at their best.”
The biggest cause for concern for BYU in 2021 — aside from the fact that the schedule is 10 times more difficult — is a defense that returns only four starters. Sure, there are some guys back from injury who played a lot in 2019, but the Cougars’ defense wasn’t all that great that year, especially defending the run.
Like Leiataua, defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki isn’t buying the notion that there will be a significant drop-off.
“I sleep really well,” Tuiaki said Monday, when asked what is keeping him awake at night. “I feel really good about the personnel. And the coaching staff that I have got has done a tremendous job prepping the kids. … We have a lot of pieces to fill with the kids that left for the NFL, but we do feel pretty good about the pieces in place.”
Having given up just 15.3 points per game in 2020, No. 4 in the country in points allowed, BYU reasonably won’t come close to that figure this year. But Tuiaki said that’s the stat that matters most.
“That’s the one stat that is going to affect the game more than anything else,” he said. “Obviously, everything else is important. But everything has got to be about keeping points off the board.”
Offensively, the only questions are with the offensive line, which is replacing three starters.
Having been named Wilson’s successor last week as the Cougars’ starting quarterback, Jaren Hall said all the pieces are in place to have another big scoring year. He’s not Wilson, but he’s shown he can deliver wins if he can stay healthy.
“The thing that has me confident is how we came together toward the end (of camp) as an offense,” said receiver Gunner Romney, one of four or five receivers on the roster with NFL capability. “Starting last week, the offense found its groove a little bit, and we have been getting better and better every single day. That is what gives me a lot of confidence.”
Special teams might be BYU’s biggest strength, as redshirt sophomore kicker Jake Oldroyd and redshirt freshman punter Ryan Rehkow form one of the top kicker-punter combinations in the country.
In a nutshell, that’s sums up the Cougars’ outlook: Solid offense, slightly suspect defense, veteran coaching (with the additions of OL coach Darrell Funk and LBs coach Kevin Clune) and outstanding specialists.
Predicting each game on the schedule
What kind of season will it produce?
The Deseret News is predicting a 7-5 record for the Cougars, with wins over Arizona, South Florida, Utah State, Boise State, Virginia, Idaho State and Georgia Southern and losses to Utah, Arizona State, Baylor, Washington State and USC.
Here’s a game-by-game look at how we see the season unfolding, with final score predictions:
Saturday, vs. Arizona (in Las Vegas): BYU fired out of the gates in impressive fashion last year, blitzing Navy 55-3 in Annapolis to serve notice that it was on the brink of a phenomenal season. Arizona is clearly rebuilding after last year’s 0-5 disaster that ended with the firing of coach Kevin Sumlin, but the Wildcats surely will be more physically ready than the Midshipmen were. New coach Jedd Fisch has seen to that, and Arizona is looking to snap its 12-game losing skid.
Can the Wildcats pull off the upset in Allegiant Stadium, where BYU is expected to have a 4-1 advantage in fans? Of course. Arizona has Pac-12 talent, plus quite a few transfers from Power Five schools. We’ve got a hunch this one will be closer than most BYU fans expect.
Prediction: BYU 28, Arizona 24
Sept. 11, vs. Utah: Let’s face it — last year was probably BYU’s best chance of ending Utah’s nine-game stranglehold on the rivalry game. No game was played, however, due to the Pac-12 telling the Utes they couldn’t play until November.
Utah, which opened against Weber State on Thursday, has a couple extra days to prepare for the Cougars. Surely, coach Kyle Whittingham will use them. He may have downplayed the rivalry last month at the Pac-12 media day, but rest assured the former Cougar will have his troops ready to win again in Provo. With Baylor transfer Charlie Brewer having won the quarterback competition, Utah appears to have all the pieces needed to make a run at the Rose Bowl. The Utes look that good.
Prediction: Utah 21, BYU 13
Sept. 18, vs. Arizona State: The Sun Devils, a former WAC foe, are making their first visit to BYU since 1998, when they were defeated 26-6 in Provo despite a No. 14 national ranking. The program is under NCAA scrutiny for alleged recruiting and other violations, and three coaches are on administrative leave because of it.
But embattled coach Herm Edwards’ roster is extremely talented, and some believe ASU has its best team in years. Quarterback Jayden Daniels could be the best QB BYU sees all season, along with the aforementioned Brewer.
Prediction: Arizona State 35, BYU 31
Sept. 25, vs. South Florida: Jaren Hall’s first career start at quarterback came in 2019 in Tampa, Florida, and the Cougars lost 27-23 to the Bulls in a game that marked the low point of the season. South Florida returns the game in late September, having gone winless in 2020 against teams from the Football Bowl Subdivision.
The Cougars quite likely will be looking to get back on the winning track in their third-straight home game, after playing expected Pac-12 contenders the previous two weeks. The Bulls have some offensive firepower, including QB Cade Fortin, but won’t find the cross-country trip an easy one.
Prediction: BYU 41, South Florida 17
Oct. 1, at Utah State: BYU claimed The Battle for the Old Wagon Wheel with a 42-14 win in Logan two years ago, and got to keep one of college football’s better rivalry trophies last year due to the pandemic. The 90th meeting comes on The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ general conference weekend, and again in Logan despite the Aggies getting to play the host in the previous matchup.
Blake Anderson was brought in from Arkansas State to rescue a program that went 1-5 in 2020 and saw coach Gary Andersen replaced three games into season. As of Tuesday, the Aggies had not named their starting quarterback for their opener Saturday at Washington State.
Prediction: BYU 30, Utah State 21
Oct. 9, vs. Boise State: BYU has never won three straight games against the Broncos, but this might be the year that happens. Or maybe not. Boise State has revenge on its mind, after getting pummeled on its own blue turf last year 51-17 in a game that was canceled by the pandemic, then put back on the schedule.
Former Bronco Andy Avalos replaced Auburn-bound Bryan Harsin at the helm, and does inherit some talent, particularly at the quarterback position where Hank Bachmeier beat out USC transfer Jack Sears for the starting spot.
Prediction: BYU 27, Boise State 23
Oct. 16, at Baylor: Plenty of storylines in this one, as BYU leaves the state of Utah for the first time since the opener vs. Arizona and meets the new school of former offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes and offensive line coach Eric Mateos.
Will the Big 12 be watching? Or will BYU already be headed to that league, after Texas and Oklahoma announced they were bolting and the Big 12 began the expansion process?
The faith-based institutions match up for the first time since 1984, a 47-13 BYU win in Provo en route to the national championship.
Prediction: Baylor 35, BYU 24
Oct. 23, at Washington State: Hard to believe that BYU has never played in Pullman, Washington, but that will be the case in the fifth meeting between the red and blue Cougars. Three games were played in Provo, and one in the Holiday Bowl, a 38-36 BYU win in 1981.
Wazzu is led by controversial coach Nick Rolovich, who has made headlines this summer for his refusal to get the COVID-19 vaccine. After the state of Washington mandated the shot for all of its higher education employees, Rolovich said he would do it.
Regardless, this figures to be a stiff test for BYU, a week after traveling to Texas for the emotional game against Baylor.
Prediction: Washington State 38, BYU 34
Oct. 30, vs. Virginia: Word is that Mendenhall wanted out of this game when he took the head job at Virginia in December 2015, but the Cougars insisted it be played.
Whatever the case, it should be an emotional day-before-Halloween showdown in Provo, and not just because of Mendenhall’s return. He went 99-43 in 11 seasons at BYU.
Many of Mendenhall’s assistants at UVA were with him in Provo, and the returns of Robert Anae, Nick Howell, Kelly Poppinga and the rest will make this matchup even juicier, especially if both teams are having successful seasons.
Anybody up for a slogan? How about overtime?
Prediction: BYU 31, Virginia 30 (OT)
Nov. 6, vs. Idaho State: The Bengals went 2-4 last season (which was actually played last spring) but were in most of their games in the fourth quarter.
They will make the trip from Pocatello to pick up a nice paycheck in exchange for playing the role of a breather on BYU’s mostly difficult 2021 schedule.
The Cougars are 6-0 all-time against ISU, including a 42-10 win in 2019.
Prediction: BYU 50, Idaho State 14
Nov. 20: at Georgia Southern: The Cougars make only their fourth trip ever to the state of Georgia to play a football game, having met Georgia Tech twice in Atlanta and Georgia once in Athens.
This will be the first game ever between the Cougars and the Eagles of the Sun Belt Conference. The Cougars will be coming off a bye, but can’t afford to take the Eagles lightly. Georgia Southern has compiled three straight winning seasons.
Prediction: BYU 39, Georgia Southern 27
Nov. 27, at Southern Cal: BYU returns to the famed Coliseum for the first time since 2003, when it attracted so many Cougar fans to Los Angeles that then-USC athletic director Mike Garrett asked not-yet BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe where they were all coming from.
Of course, USC visited BYU in 2019 and went home with a 30-27 overtime loss as Zach Wilson directed the Cougars to their second straight upset win over a Power Five opponent.
Plenty of intrigue should accompany this late-season, nonconference matchup. Will the Trojans be getting ready for the Pac-12 championship game the following week? Will the Cougars already be bowl bound, or need a win to wrap up a trip to Shreveport, Louisiana?
Prediction: USC 41, BYU 21