Is BYU football back? Cougars say they’ve turned corner, can sustain 2020 success next year and beyond
While acknowledging the schedule has been less than ideal, BYU coaches believe they’ve laid the groundwork for more winning seasons in the future, but know they have to prove it in Tuesday’s Boca Raton Bowl vs. UCF
BOCA RATON, Florida — By most accounts, college football independent BYU has put together a special season in the midst of a global pandemic, nearly playing a full schedule and qualifying to play in a bowl game for the third straight year and fourth in coach Kalani Sitake’s five-year tenure.
Because the Cougars (10-1) have played a less-than-difficult schedule, however, the question has to be asked before they take on arguably the best team (according to the computers) they will see in 2020, 6-3 Central Florida in the Boca Raton Bowl on Tuesday.
Fool’s gold, or nah?
In other words, has Sitake’s program turned the corner and returned to national relevance? Has it shucked off the 2017 disaster and a couple years of mediocrity? Or is this newfound success the function of an easy, thrown-together-at-the-last-minute schedule — one of the easiest in the country (105th), according to the Sagarin Ratings?
The first answer should come at partially filled FAU Stadium (6,000 spectators will be allowed) in front of ESPN cameras in the third bowl game of a truncated bowl season that seemingly grows smaller by the day as more and more teams opt out of postseason play and more bowls cancel due to COVID-19 concerns.
“We got to prove it (Tuesday), but I do believe we are reaching a point now where we should be a good team for a long time. We’ve got a lot of good players in this program, good young players. Most of our best players are returning. … And then the last few signing classes have been strong. So we are a deep team and we should be strong for years to come.” — BYU passing game coordinator Aaron Roderick.
“We’ve got one last hurrah with this group, and it is not going to be the same next year,” Sitake said. “We will have some guys that will come back, but we will have a good number of leaders who will be gone. It will be a good time to try and send them out the right way, like we did last weekend at home” in a 28-14 win over San Diego State.
Sitake and the Cougars have said all season that their foundation is strong and built to last; even before they crushed Navy 55-3 on Labor Day night, coaches were saying they were going to be good — against any caliber of opponent.
But there is still a sentiment among the players that they have to prove themselves one more time against an opponent with some real national cachet, perhaps the best Group of Five program of the past five years.
“I think the comment (about) proving ourselves is, ‘Hey, we are going to erase this question mark around BYU (and show) that we are a good team, the program is in good hands, and the program will continue to be great,” said linebacker Isaiah Kaufusi.
If nothing else, a win will almost certainly ensure the Cougars are in the national rankings next August, even if junior quarterback Zach Wilson leaves for the NFL, as is expected.
“Oh, definitely,” said another senior linebacker who has been a program mainstay the past several years, Kavika Fonua. “We got the guys for next year and the years to come. This season is definitely a building block, definitely a steppingstone for the future.”
What the Cougars have accomplished this season has “staying power,” Fonua said.
Kaufusi, Fonua and most of the other seniors who can take advantage of an “extra year” granted by the NCAA and return in 2021 have not said yet what they plan to do, but the feeling around the program is that most will move on. Teams will be allowed to have more than the usual 85 players on scholarship, but not more than 123 on the roster, Sitake has said.
Passing game coordinator Aaron Roderick, the man who will be charged with developing Wilson’s replacement — Baylor Romney, Jaren Hall, Jacob Conover, Sol-Jay Maiva are the candidates — said the parts are in place to continue the upswing.
“We got to prove it (Tuesday), but I do believe we are reaching a point now where we should be a good team for a long time,” Roderick said. “We’ve got a lot of good players in this program, good young players. Most of our best players are returning. … And then the last few signing classes have been strong. So we are a deep team and we should be strong for years to come.”
Roderick said some returning missionaries have played before (most notably tight end Dallin Holker) and are known quantities, and “there are guys that did not play before missions that we are really high on as well.”
Sitake said that although the Cougars did not get the traditional two or three weeks between the end of the regular season and the bowl game to develop younger players, they did use some time during bye weeks to accomplish that. He also said the COVID-19 and contact tracing issues forced some younger players into action earlier than expected, and they delivered.
Running back Tyler Allgeier, receivers Dax Milne and tight end Isaac Rex are among the stars in the making on the offensive side of the ball.
“We have a ton of returning talent in the receiver group,” said Milne, a somewhat surprising 1,000-yard receiver in 2020.
Top returning defenders (non-seniors) include linebackers Max Tooley, Keenan Pili and Payton Wilgar and defensive backs Micah Harper and George Udo.
“I can honestly say the culture we have here is built on love,” Sitake said. “I see our players mentoring each other and teaching and learning from each other every day. It is an awesome thing to see.”
If there is a concern about depth in 2021, it is in the trenches. BYU’s offensive and defensive lines could be depleted by graduations and players leaving early for shots at the NFL. Standout offensive linemen Brady Christensen and James Empey, juniors who are older because they served two-year church missions, have difficult decisions to make.
On defense, nose tackle Khyiris Tonga almost certainly will take his services to the NFL, while up-and-comers Tyler Batty and Gabe Summers, a walk-on who deserves a scholarship will attempt to fill his shoes.