So Kalani Sitake has pulled it off.

His BYU football team will likely lose some games this year — they face Oregon next and that just smells like trouble, doesn’t it? — but it does not change the fact that Sitake has the BYU program on solid footing.

The Cougars are winning consistently. They appear regularly in the national rankings. They’re beating ranked teams. If they were a publicly traded company, they would’ve been a good buy two to three years ago.

Sitake has taken his alma mater — and his hometown team — through some of the most challenging times the Cougars have ever faced and brought them back to the national prominence that was achieved by his former (legendary) coach, LaVell Edwards.

It’s easy to forget how bad things were not so long ago — the 1-7 start in Sitake’s second season, the 4-9 finish (the worst record at BYU in more than a half century), the housecleaning of his coaching staff. Only three years ago Sitake’s name was on those “hot-seat” lists the media creates for coaches whose jobs seem to be on the line.

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The Cougars had lost 21 of 39 games. No one cared that the cupboard had been left empty by his predecessor, Bronco Mendenhall, and that it would take time to restock. Maybe the best way to quantify the talent level of those years is through NFL draft picks. Only nine players were drafted under Mendenhall and in three of those years not a single player was drafted. In the last three drafts Sitake’s teams have had seven players selected.

BYU’s status as an independent only made recruitment more difficult.

It didn’t look good. They were searching for wins, they were searching for a conference home, they were searching for a breakthrough victory over their archrival, Utah, they were searching for recruits and depth.

But then came the 2020 COVID-19 season in which the Cougars cobbled together a schedule at the 11th hour after many teams canceled. The Cougars won 11 of 12 games and finished 11th in the final polls. As weird as it sounds, nobody other than Anthony Fauci benefited more from the pandemic than BYU.

But that could’ve been written off as a fluke season, with a schedule that was necessarily dumbed down by the absence of willing opponents. Surely the Cougars would return to earth in 2021, especially after their star quarterback was taken second overall in the NFL draft.

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Instead, they won 10 of 13 games and finished No. 19th in the final AP poll. If not for an inexplicable loss in the Independence Bowl they would’ve been much higher (they were 12th heading into the bowl game). This was a big improvement for a team that went 10 years (2010-19) without finishing in the top 25 of the AP rankings — their longest drought since the ’60s.

Now they are off to a 2-0 start, having dispatched No. 9 Baylor last weekend in overtime. They have climbed from 25th in the preseason poll to 21st in Week 1 to No. 12 in Week 2. They have won 24 of their last 28 games, dating back to 2020. That includes wins over nationally ranked Boise State, Utah, Arizona State and Baylor. They are 6-0 against Pac-12 teams, 7-1 against Power Five schools.

And they have survived 12 years in exile (independence). Next year they will join the Big 12. The talent and depth is improved (seven NFL draft picks in the last three years). They finally beat Utah (last season). Sitake’s job is no longer in jeopardy, to say the least. Last winter BYU offered him a contract extension through the 2027 season. His overall record was 27-25 after four years on the job; it’s now 50-29.

They have another great opportunity this season, but they also face one of their most difficult schedules as an independent. Having already beaten Baylor, they still must face Oregon, Notre Dame, Arkansas, Stanford and Boise State. Meanwhile, Sitake has restored BYU’s football program, and he did it while weathering the added challenges of a pandemic, independence and the chaotic arrival of the NIL and transfer portal rules. That’s worth pausing to note as he wades into another season.

BYU head coach Kalani Sitake greets fans prior to the game against Baylor at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Saturday, Sept. 10, 2022.
BYU head coach Kalani Sitake greets fans prior to the BYU-Baylor game at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Saturday, Sept. 10, 2022. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
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