Provo • BYU’s football program faces a crossroads season in 2019, as popular head coach Kalani Sitake enters his fourth year at the helm.
Yeah, that’s not exactly a bold prediction, but it has been the basic storyline since the Cougars went independent in 2011. Even the questions remain the same.
Did last year’s 7-6 season signal a recovery from the disastrous 2017 season when they went 4-9 and failed to reach a bowl game for the first time since 2004? Or was it a brief respite from a long, slow downward slide?
But the coach insists he’s not losing sleep at night over his uncertain contract situation — the five-year deal he signed when he replaced Bronco Mendenhall in 2016 expires in 2020 — or the cloudy capabilities of this year’s squad.
“I am really encouraged by what I have seen, especially the physical part of our team,” he said. “It is going to be really exciting for us when these guys take the field. It’s a solid group. I feel good about them.”
BYU FOOTBALL SCHEDULE
Aug. 29 vs. Utah, 8:15 p.m.
Cougars and Utes open against each other for the first time in their long and storied rivalry with BYU looking to snap its eight-game skid.
Sept. 7 at Tennessee, 5 p.m. MDT
First-ever matchup between the Cougars and Vols. Tennessee is scheduled to visit LaVell Edwards Stadium in 2023.
Sept. 14 vs. USC, 1:30 p.m. MDT
After facing Fresno State and Stanford at home, the once-mighty Trojans return to Provo for the first time since Reggie Bush led them to a 42-10 win in 2004.
Sept. 21 vs. Washington, TBA
The Huskies return to Provo for the first time since 2010 when Jake Heaps and Riley Nelson split time at quarterback and the Cougars took a 23-17 win.
Sept. 28 at Toledo, TBA
BYU makes its first appearance in the famed Glass Bowl after having eked out a 55-53 win over the Rockets in 2016.
Oct. 12 at South Florida, TBA
This is another first-time matchup, as the Cougars get a look at Raymond James Stadium, home of the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers. BYU is 0-6 in the state of Florida.
Oct. 19 vs. Boise State, TBA
BYU is 2-2 at home against the Broncos, and will be looking to avenge a heartbreaking loss on the blue turf last year when freshman QB Zach Wilson was sacked near the goal line in the final moments.
Nov. 2 at Utah State, TBA
The Aggies have won the Old Wagon Wheel game twice in a row and will be looking to make it three straight over the Cougars for the first time since 1971-74.
Nov. 9 vs. Liberty, TBA
Fellow independent Liberty visits Provo for the first time in its second season at the FBS level. The Flames went 6-6 last year and should bring an explosive offense.
Nov. 16 vs. Idaho State, 1 p.m. MST
FCS member ISU travels to Provo for the fourth time. The Cougars walloped their neighbors to the North 59-13 in the last matchup back in 2013.
Nov. 23 at UMass, TBA
BYU makes the long trip East to face fellow independent UMass for the second straight season, but this game will be played in Amherst, rather than Gillette Stadium in Foxborough.
Nov. 30 at San Diego State, 7 p.m. MST
Former Mountain West and WAC foes meet for the first time in a regular season game since 2010 when the Cougars prevailed 24-21. BYU also downed SDSU 23-6 in the 2012 Poinsettia Bowl.
Senior safety Austin Lee took it a step further when asked for a prognostication.
“I say that we are going to shock some people,” Lee said. “We are going to be very successful. There is no doubt about it, in my mind. We play some great teams, but we are a great team.”
Lee then paused a bit, and came up with this disclaimer:
“If we play a full four quarters, we will be hard to beat.”
Yes, memories of that November meltdown at the University of Utah still linger. Depth was a huge issue, as the Cougars wore down after building a 27-7 lead and fell 35-27 at Rice-Eccles Stadium.
Perhaps because BYU opens against Utah on Thursday at LaVell Edwards Stadium, that loss became an offseason rallying cry, and also made Sitake analyze his depth from top to bottom. He says the staff has taken steps to correct the deficiencies.
The Utah game “gave us more of a sense of urgency,” Sitake said. “The fact that we played them so recently, it is really fresh on our guys’ minds. We have never done this before, so it is a different feel, but I actually like it. Our guys are a little more serious. I appreciate the schedule maker getting our guys a little more ready. I think that’s been a huge byproduct of our intensity.”
Offensively, the Cougars should continue to rise in coordinator Jeff Grimes’ second year, and with sophomore quarterback Zach Wilson the established starter.
“I think you gotta accept the pressure,” Wilson said. “Our saying is, ‘We dance with fear.’ Everyone has fear. We call it our lizard brain. … but as long as you are prepared, there comes a great opportunity for you to take advantage of it.”
Wilson’s prognostication: “I think we are going to be a great team. We are going to be really explosive. We have a lot of big-time players. I know our defense is going to hold it down. So, we are going to be good.”
Defensively, the Cougars are in danger of taking a step back, after three solid years in underrated defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki’s tenure. There are holes at linebacker, no established pass-rushers, and questions in the secondary if Troy Warner and Chris Wilcox are forced to take redshirt seasons due to injury.
“The name of the game is avoiding injuries,” Tuiaki said. “The bottom line is to get as many healthy guys to the fight as you can, and they will make you look good.”
BYU’S PROJECTED TWO-DEEP
QB • Zach Wilson, So., 6-3, 203; Jaren Hall, Fr., 6-1, 205
RB • Lopini Katoa, So., 6-1, 210; Ty’Son Williams, Sr., 6-0, 220
WRX • Gunner Romney, So., 6-3, 188; Micah Simon, Sr., 6-1, 195
WRZ • Talon Shumway, Sr., 6-3, 210; Keanu Hill, Fr., 6-4, 210
SLOT • Aleva Hifo, Sr., 5-10, 187; Dax Milne, So., 6-0, 187
TE • Matt Bushman, So., 6-5, 245; Moroni Laulu-Pututau, Jr., 6-5, 240
LT • Brady Christensen, Fr., 6-6, 295; Thomas Shoaf, Sr., 6-5, So., 6-7, 305
LG • Kieffer Longston, Jr., 6-7, 317; Keanu Saleapaga, So., 6-6, 310
C • James Empey, Fr., 6-4, 300; Caden Haws, Fr., 6-2, 300
RG • Tristen Hoge, Jr., 6-5, 310; Chandon Herring, Jr., 6-7, 310
RT • Harris LaChance, Fr., 6-8, 306; Chandon Herring, Jr., 6-7, 310
DE • Zac Dawe, 6-4, 265; Trajan Pili, Jr., 6-2, 255
NT • Khyiris Tonga, Jr., 6-4, 321; Bracken El-Bakri, Sr., 6-3, 287
DT • Lorenzo Fauatea, So., 6-4, 300; Earl Tuioti-Mariner, 6-4, 290
OE • Devin Kaufusi, Sr., 6-7, 255; Uriah Leiataua, Jr., 6-4, 255
FLB • Zayne Anderson, Sr., 6-2, 216; Chaz Ah You, So., 6-2, 205
MLB • Keenan Pili, Fr., 6-3, 220; Payton Wilgar, Jr. 6-3, 235
WLB • Isaiah Kaufusi, Jr., 6-2, 219; Max Tooley, Fr., 6-2, 225
LC • Dayan Ghanwoloku, Sr., 5-11, 200; Shamon Willis, So., 5-10, 180
RC • D’Angelo Mandell, So., 6-1, 185; Isaiah Herron, Fr., 6-1, 175
FS • Austin Lee, Sr., 6-0, 200; Austin Kafentzis, Sr., 6-1, 200
SS • Sawyer Powell, Sr., 6-1, 200; Malik Moore, So., 6-1, 186
PK • Jake Oldroyd, Fr., 6-1, 195; Skyler Southam, So., 6-0, 200
P • Danny Jones, So., 6-4, 245; Jake Oldroyd, Fr., 6-1, 195
KR • Aleva Hifo, Sr., 5-10, 187; Tyler Allgeier, Fr., 5-11, 220
PR • Gunner Romney, So., 6-3, 188; Micah Simon, Sr., 6-1, 195
LS • Mitch Harris, Sr., 6-4, 219; Britton Hogan, Fr., 6-3, 220
KO • Skyler Southam, So., 6-0, 185; Jake Oldroyd, Fr., 6-1, 195
The Cougars will succeed if: They can stay healthy. Simple as that. The talent is in place to survive a rugged early season schedule of Utah, Tennessee, USC and Washington and take some momentum into the final eight games. As the Utah game showed last year, BYU’s first-stringers are capable of playing against any team in the country. But depth is lacking, again, especially on the defensive side of the ball.
The Cougars won’t succeed if: They can’t go at least 2-1 against their three primary rivals: Utah, Boise State and Utah State. Leadership shouldn’t be an issue, because the team has rallied behind dynamic sophomore quarterback Zach Wilson, but if their fragile psyche is destroyed, as it was in 2017 after an abysmal start, their season could crumble.
Bottom line: Coach Kalani Sitake is quietly confident that this BYU team will be physical enough to hang with the Power 5 opponents early as he enters the fourth year of his five-year contract. Eight wins will almost certainly earn him a contract extension; On the other hand, not making a bowl game could signal the end of the popular coach’s time in Provo. It truly is a crossroads season for the Cougars.