BYU football made most of the hand it was dealt, vaulted back to national relevance
Sure, the nationally ranked Cougars had an easy schedule after the original slate was wiped out by cancellations due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but they dominated almost every opponent en route to their best season since 1996
Any analysis, retrospective or summarization of BYU’s recently completed 2020 football season has to begin and end with the acknowledgment that the Cougars played — through no fault of their own — the easiest schedule in the history of easy schedules.
So let’s get that concession out of the way at the top. As they say, it was what it was — the 95th most-difficult lineup in the land, according to the Sagarin Ratings, a computer-based power-ranking system that had BYU at No. 13 after the Cougars walloped No. 29 Central Florida 49-23 in the Boca Raton Bowl to finish the season at 11-1.
They were No. 16 in the College Football Playoff rankings, No. 13 in the AP Top 25 and No. 15 in the Amway Coaches Poll as of Saturday, rankings that did not reflect their easier-than-expected win over a 6-3 Knights team that had not been held under 24 points in 48 straight games and had not lost by more than eight points during that stretch either.
Some will say the entire season was meaningless, ravaged as it was by the COVID-19 virus. It was all just an exhibition, not to be taken seriously by true guardians of the sport, naysayers believe. And that’s OK. To each their own.
“Yeah, I mean, the wins and losses don’t really matter. What matters is the progress we are making as a program. I know (wins) are what fans look at, but for me I am seeing a lot of progress made over the last few years.” — BYU football coach Kalani Sitake
What should be remembered, said BYU coach Kalani Sitake, now 38-26 through five seasons at the helm, is that the Cougars made the most of the hand they were dealt and remained grateful to just be playing football through it all.
By having his team ready physically to answer the bell 12 times amid strict coronavirus protocols that forced the cancellation of only one game — at Army on Sept. 19 — and winning 11 of those games (BYU’s first 11-win season since it went 11-2 in 2009), Sitake not only justified the contract extension he was rewarded with midway through last year, but made the case he deserves another one soon. Rightfully, he’s a finalist for National Coach of the Year honors.
It was BYU’s first one-loss season since 1996, when it went 14-1 and won the Cotton Bowl.
“Yeah, I mean, the wins and losses don’t really matter,” Sitake said in Boca Raton on Tuesday. “What matters is the progress we are making as a program. I know (wins) are what fans look at, but for me I am seeing a lot of progress made over the last few years.”
Progress, indeed. Forget about COVID-19, schedule strength, being the only team west of Texas playing in September and most of October and everything else. BYU’s program moved forward in 2020, after a rather disappointing end to the 2019 season that saw the Cougars lose their final two games and finish 7-6 for the second straight season.
Last year, the Cougars too often couldn’t nail the ending. Not so in 2020, save that yard-short finish at Coastal Carolina, a 22-17 loss after 50 hours notice to fly across the country and face an undefeated team with a creative, unique offense on its home field.
It was a game the Cougars absolutely had to take — especially after a few national football writers erroneously and inaccurately accused them of ducking Washington a few weeks prior. They took the loss but gained widespread praise for having the gumption to do it.
Their 10th season as a college football independent — when that freedom from conference ties was rewarded with the ability to forge ahead amid the pandemic — was truly one for the ages in Provo.
A closer look at 2020
It’s all there in the numbers: With a few bowl games remaining that may change their national standing slightly in some statistical categories, the Cougars are fifth in scoring offense (43.5), seventh in total offense (522.2), fourth in scoring defense (15.3) and 13th in total defense (317.4).
By way of comparison, last year they were 68th in scoring offense (28.5) and 53rd in scoring defense (25.5). They finished the 2019 season with a Sagarin Rating of 67 and an SOS of 65.
In no area was the improvement more noticeable than red zone scoring. Offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes and his staff of Aaron Roderick, Fesi Sitake, Steve Clark and Harvey Unga identified that as a weakness and delivered in spades.
BYU scored on 55 of its 61 red-zone attempts; at least three of those “failures” came when it was in victory formation to run out the clock and not run up the score, as was the case Tuesday at FAU Stadium.
BYU football in selected national categories in 2020
Scoring offense: Fifth (43.5 points per game)
Total offense: Seventh (522.2 yards per game)
Scoring defense: Fourth (15.3 points per game)
Total defense: 13th (317.4 yards per game)
Note: Rankings may change slightly as remaining bowl teams finish their seasons.
A lot of BYU’s numbers would have been even better if Sitake had not cleared his bench midway through the third quarter, in some cases. For instance, record-setting quarterback Zach Wilson sat out the equivalent of two full games, or more.
“We were really excited about this season, because we knew we had a deep team and we would be tested often,” Sitake said. “I am just really proud of our team, and this is going to be a huge step forward for a lot of young guys who made a lot of plays and have bright futures here at BYU. We are going to have to lean on them heavily as we go into the next season.”
Still, the Cougars’ average margin of victory was 28.2 points, the highest in school history — passing the 27.9 mark set in 1980, according to Cougarstats.com.
“Eleven wins is hard to do,” Roderick said. “And being a one-loss team is really hard to do. … All these guys have come a long way and it has been fun to watch them progress. It has been a special group of guys as far as their willingness to do everything we have asked them to do. Our record was the same (two years in a row), but we knew we were getting better. We saw signs of improvement in certain areas. And then of course most of those same players returned this year and they just took another step forward.”
It all started, of course, when athletic director Tom Holmoe rebuilt the obliterated schedule in August. The Cougars blew out Navy 55-3 and became the talk of the nation, for stretches, as Wilson soared up Heisman Trophy watch lists and NFL draft boards and former walk-ons Dax Milne and Tyler Allgeier and Matt Bushman-replacement Isaac Rex became unexpected offensive stars.
Allgeier averaged 7.53 yards per carry (second only to Luke Staley’s 8.03 in 2001) and passed the 1,000-yard plateau, finishing with 1,130 in 10 games played. Milne had 70 catches for 1,188 yards and eight touchdowns and freshman Rex hauled in 12 TD passes and was No. 3 in the country in that category through Friday.
How BYU went 11-1 in 2020
Sept. 7 — defeated Navy 55-3
Sept. 26 — defeated Troy 48-7
Oct. 2 — defeated Louisiana Tech 45-14
Oct. 10 — defeated UTSA 27-20
Oct. 16 — defeated Houston 43-26
Oct. 24 — defeated Texas State 52-14
Oct. 31 — defeated Western Kentucky 41-10
Nov. 6 — defeated Boise State 51-17
Nov. 21 — defeated North Alabama 66-14
Dec. 5 — lost to Coastal Carolina 22-17
Dec. 12 — defeated San Diego State 28-14
Dec. 22 — defeated Central Florida 49-23
BYU’s 43.5 points per game was the third-highest ever, behind the 1980 and 2001 offenses.
Defensively, senior linemen Khyris Tonga, Zac Dawe and Bracken El-Bakri and linebackers Isaiah Kaufusi and Kavika Fonua and defensive backs Chris Wilcox, Troy Warner and Zayne Anderson led a unit that gave up just 4.8 yards per play and 309.5 yards per game. The Cougars finished in the top 25 defensively for the third time in five years. Defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki takes some heat for his rush-three, drop-eight approach, but the final results don’t lie: BYU’s defense has been a strength more often than not in Sitake’s tenure.
On special teams, kicker Jake Oldroyd was 13-for-13 on field goals and became a finalist for the Lou Groza Award.
After the NCAA ruled in August that all student-athletes could have an extra year of eligibility due to the pandemic, predicting future rosters became almost fruitless.
Most of BYU’s seniors — including the aforementioned senior defenders — have hinted through social media and the like that they will move on. Only Wilcox, who opted out of the bowl game, has been definitive about it.
Offensively, Wilson will announce any day now that he is foregoing his senior season for the NFL. Whether he will be joined by any other underclassmen remains to be seen, but some are seriously considering it. Offensive linemen James Empey and Brady Christensen are the obvious candidates to leave early, especially Christensen, who is making most season-ending All-America teams. Fellow blockers Tristen Hoge, Chandon Herring and Kieffer Longson are seniors and will likely move on.
Reliable backup Baylor Romney, injury plagued two-sport athlete Jaren Hall, returned missionary Jacob Conover and redshirt freshman Sol-Jay Maiava-Peters will be in the running, with the first two having the most game experience and the latter two having more of an upside, based on recruiting interest when they were in high school.
“Yeah, we’ve got good quarterbacks in the room,” Roderick said last week. “So whatever Zach decides, I feel confident we have a good group and we will continue to play at a high level at quarterback.”
Whatever happens, the 2021 team will have a difficult time duplicating the feats of the 2020 team — easy schedule or not.