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The cold, hard truth about this BYU football team

When comparing the numbers, this year’s Cougars squad could be among the worst in the modern era of BYU football

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BYU coach Kalani Sitake, center, watches during the Cougars’ season opener against Sam Houston State on Saturday.

BYU coach Kalani Sitake, center, watches during the Cougars’ season opener against Sam Houston State on SSept. 2, 2023, in Provo, Utah. The Cougars won 14-0, but the victory left little for Cougar fans to be enthusiastic about.

Rick Bowmer, Associated Press

The magic is gone from the BYU football program. The Cougars were once the trendsetters, the innovators. Their style of play — specifically, a pro-type pass offense that was ahead of its time — differentiated them from the rest of the crowd. They were unique.

The Cougars necessarily signed inferior recruits, but they were able to win by teaching them the nuances of the passing game — how to decipher defenses on the fly, for instance, and how to beat them. No team did it more or better. They thrived. Even if they didn’t always win, they were able to compete because they didn’t try to overpower teams (they knew they couldn’t); they finessed them.

Now they are just another program with just another offense. There is nothing special about them. Nothing distinguishes them. There’s nothing fresh about them. Everyone caught up with the passing game and now other teams do it better than the innovators. The Cougars haven’t discovered a new act that would set them apart.

And they can’t compete. Remember that 14-0 win over Sam Houston in the season opener? That should’ve been the first sign that something wasn’t right. Everyone was saying the Bearkats, debuting as an FBS program, must be better than everyone had thought. No. The team didn’t win a game until Week 9, against Kennesaw State.

The Cougars, with a 5-5 record, managed some solid outings early in the season, but that was misleading — Arkansas and Cincinnati have won only three games apiece. The last three games have brought the Cougars to their knees. They lost to Texas (35-6), West Virginia (37-7) and Iowa State (45-13). They were outscored 117-26 and looked lost and befuddled. Now they face 14th-ranked Oklahoma on Saturday, followed by the regular-season finale at 23rd-ranked Oklahoma State.

Growing pains were expected when they joined the Big 12. It’s notable that three of the four teams that joined the Big 12 this year have identical 2-5 records (the fourth, Cincinnati, is 1-6) and sit at the bottom of the league. But BYU is not even in the game. The Cougars are getting steamrolled. The Big 12 is not a powerhouse league. Other than Texas and Oklahoma, what does the Big 12 have? The Cougars were routed by Iowa State and West Virginia, two very ordinary teams.

A major college program should be able to compete. It can’t look like that. It can’t be that inept. Look at the facilities — the indoor practice field, the state-of-the-art weight room and football offices, the 63,000-seat stadium. Look what the school has poured into the program.

It’s a systemic failure.

It’s easy to write this off as a product of a more difficult schedule, but that argument doesn’t stick. BYU has played difficult schedules previously, sometimes much more difficult schedules. Sports-Reference ranks BYU’s strength of schedule at 2.0. There have been five teams since the start of the LaVell Edwards era (the renaissance of BYU) that have played more difficult schedules and with better results.

2004 season — Strength of schedule: 6.36. It is the most difficult schedule BYU has undertaken in the modern era, with the Cougars playing three teams that finished the regular season undefeated and ranked among the top 10 nationally. With John Beck at quarterback, they averaged 280 yards through the air per game and 7.5 yards per attempt, which, as you’ll see, are much better stats than those of today’s team, and they managed it against a killer schedule. Team record: 5-6.

2003 season — SOS: 4.22. The Cougars, with Beck and Matt Berry at quarterback, won only four games against a difficult schedule, but still managed more offensive firepower than the current team. They passed for 215 yards per game, with a paltry 6.1 yards per pass attempt. Team record: 4-8.

2013 season — SOS: 3.77. The Cougars, led by quarterback Taysom Hill, passed for 232 yards per game and 8.9 yards per attempt and managed to muster a good running attack to back it up. Team record: 8-5.

1992 season — SOS: 2.49. With Ryan Hancock and John Walsh playing quarterback, the Cougars averaged 325 passing yards per game and 8.9 yards per attempt. Team record: 8-5.

1993 season — SOS: 2.07. John Walsh passed for 406 yards per game, averaging 9.4 yards per attempt. Team record: 6-6.

This season BYU banked on not one, but two transfer quarterbacks: Kedon Slovis — playing for his third school in three years — and Jake Retzlaff — last stop: Riverside City College. The results:

Passing yards per game: 209.5

Only three BYU teams since 1975 have had worse production, and this year’s team doesn’t have much of a running game, so the numbers are even worse than they appear.

Yards per pass attempt: 6.2

Only the 2017 squad (6.1) has averaged fewer yards per attempt since the 1980s. That stat is one of the two biggest indicators of pass efficiency along with the touchdowns-to-interceptions ratio. 

Total offense: 300 yards per game

That’s the lowest in the modern era (the second lowest was 314.6 in 2003).

Points per game: 21.9

In the modern era, only two teams fared worse — 2003 (16.3) and 2017 (17.1) — and there are still two weeks left in the season.

BYU Sooners TV

Cougars on the air

No. 14 Oklahoma (5-2, 8-2)
at BYU (2-5, 5-5)
Saturday, 10 a.m. MST
LaVell Edwards Stadium
Radio: 102.7 FM/1160 AM

BYU’s defense was an underrated part of its game during its heyday, but that has gone south, as well. The Cougars rank 103rd nationally in total defense, giving up 414.1 yards and 28.7 points per game and almost six yards per play.

It’s difficult to believe that many (most?) of the past BYU teams wouldn’t have competed better in today’s 14-team Big 12 Conference than the current team. This is one of the worst BYU teams in 50 years, and the timing — after waiting 12 years to find a conference home — couldn’t be worse.

BYU Cougars fans watch as the Cougars trail the Iowa State Cyclones 31-7 just before halftime at LaVell Edwards Stadium.

BYU fans watch as the Cougars trail the Iowa State Cyclones 31-7 just before halftime at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Saturday, Nov. 11, 2023.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News