The perfect snapshot of BYU’s football season came Sunday, when the semi-truck carrying the team’s equipment broke down in North Carolina.
It could be worse for the Cougars, even having totaled 77 points during their seven-game losing streak. They could be the Kansas Jayhawks, who netted 21 offensive yards Saturday vs. TCU.
But people are wondering just how historically bad BYU’s season is, and how much worse it could become. The outlook will improve this weekend, when the Cougars host a San Jose State team that lost to Utah and Utah State by a combined 115-26 in September. Standing 1-7 for the first time since 1968, though, BYU is damaging the program’s brand.
If not for USU’s comeback from 14 points down at UNLV, the state’s three FBS programs would have a collective 13-game skid. The Aggies had lost two home games in October after beating BYU, and Utah is acting as if the calendar already turned to November. Even so, BYU’s degree of misery rises far above its neighbors’.
Most schools could absorb one losing season in 13 years, but not BYU — not when independence is designed to make the Cougars nationally relevant, and not when they’re 1-7 and rank third to last in the country offensively.
After the Cougars’ 33-17 loss at lowly East Carolina, AP football writer Ralph D. Russo tweeted, “Good grief this could be the worst BYU team since .... ???”
Good question, and he’s not the only one wondering what’s happening in Provo. The accompanying issues are what the consequences of this season will be, and what could have prevented the downturn.
How bad will it get?
ESPN’s Football Power Index now projects 3.7 wins for BYU in a 13-game season, giving the Cougars a 1.8-percent chance of winning out and finishing 6-7 (earning bowl eligibility, with an asterisk). A reasonable ceiling is 5-8, because Fresno State is better than anyone pictured. Gary Crowton never faced an FCS opponent during BYU’s three losing seasons of 2002-04, so I would judge 5-8 as worse than anything he produced.
Even the 3-8 Cougars of 1970 beat Utah State, then a stronger program. So now the comparison reverts to the ’68 team that won its opener, lost seven straight, then beat New Mexico and lost to San Jose State to finish 2-8.
What’s the fallout? Staff changes seem inevitable, and this will get interesting. Imagine being Kalani Sitake, having to make tough choices about any of these offensive coaches: Ty Detmer, the school’s Heisman Trophy winner; Ben Cahoon, the governor’s son-in-law; Reno Mahe, another beloved ex-Cougar; Mike Empey, whose son is a BYU lineman; or Steve Clark, whose lifelong dream was to coach at BYU.
Sitake was Utah’s defensive coordinator when his boss, Kyle Whittingham, demoted Brian Johnson twice in this decade. Johnson owns the most quarterbacking victories in Ute history and a Sugar Bowl MVP trophy. That’s not quite a Heisman, but the local precedent is established. So can we all agree that fan voting is not the best way to construct a coaching staff?
The Cougars will move up markedly from No. 127 in total offense, considering their remaining opponents (San Jose State, Fresno State, UNLV, UMass and Hawaii). Yet much like quarterback Tanner Mangum’s 212 passing yards in the fourth quarter at East Carolina, the improvement will be hollow at this stage. Something will have to be done.
And the defensive staff is not exempt. Sitake and defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki once operated Sack Lake City, Utah’s aggressive defense. With nine sacks in eight games, the Cougars are tied for 119th.
Having criticized Mangum after a loss to Boise State, Sitake has been conscious of blaming himself and his staff for BYU’s problems. That’s admirable, but people may start believing him. Sitake (10-11) is the first BYU coach with a losing record through 21 games since Hal Mitchell started 6-15 in 1961-63.
What’s the solution? As much as everyone welcomed back Detmer, envisioning the BYU passing offense of old, throwing the football is not a novelty anymore. BYU has lost the advantage it once exploited. After dismissing the idea of Navy’s Ken Niumatalolo bringing his option offense to Provo when he interviewed for the job after Bronco Mendenhall went to Virginia, I’m now convinced that doing something radically different would have been the answer for BYU.
Apart from revising history, what can the Cougars do? Next year’s schedule is not easy, with trips to Arizona, Wisconsin, Washington, Boise State and Utah and home games vs. California, Utah State and Northern Illinois. The good news? The 2017 Cougars have made bowl eligibility seem like an achievement.
BYU’s losing football seasons of the past 50 years, and how the Cougars stood through eight games:
1968 • 2-8 (1-7)
1970 • 3-8 (3-5)
1971 • 5-6 (5-3)
1973 • 5-6 (2-6)
2002 • 5-7 (3-5)
2003 • 4-8 (3-5)
2004 • 5-6 (4-4)
Coaches: Tommy Hudspeth (1968, ’70, ’71); LaVell Edwards (1973); Gary Crowton (2002, ’03, ’04).