Provo • Back in early March, before the pandemic shut down everything, including the sports world, the BYU Cougars opened up spring football practice in preparation for a season that looked daunting, to say the least.
The Cougars were set to open the 2020 season against, in order, Utah, Michigan State, Arizona State and Minnesota, with Missouri and Stanford coming on the back end.
In other words, it looked a lot like BYU’s previous schedules in its independent era — a handful of Power Five opponents in what ended up being front-loaded schedule. The result: The Cougars would get banged up while scraping out a win or two in the first handful of games and go on to have mediocre-to-OK season.
But for the first time in more than a decade, the Cougars broke that mold and found their mojo once more. BYU entered December unbeaten and finished the season 10-1, just missing out on a potential New Year’s Six bowl berth after a heart-stopping loss at Coastal Carolina in a game many college football observers called the best game of the season.
Most importantly, people were buzzing about BYU football again, for the first time in a long while.
“This year, BYU got talked about because they stayed undefeated through September and October and through November,” longtime BYU play-by-play broadcaster Greg Wrubell said. “That’s just harder to do with the kinds of schedules BYU has had to play, especially since becoming an FBS independent.”
The Cougars are now preparing for the Boca Raton Bowl, where they will face UCF, on Tuesday.
BOCA RATON BOWL
BYU VS. UCF
When • Tuesday, 5 p.m. MST
TV • ESPN
What accounts for the breakthrough?
Let’s be honest. The schedule helped.
No, not that schedule. The one BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe was forced to puzzle together after all of those original Power Five opponents canceled because of the pandemic.
Instead of the Utes, Sun Devils, Spartans, etc., the Cougars played the Troy Trojans. The UTSA Roadrunners. The Texas State Bobcats. The Louisiana Tech Bulldogs. The Western Kentucky Hilltoppers. Not exactly a murderer’s row.
But the Cougars had no choice, not if they wanted to have a season, and Holmoe was the key, whipping up an almost-full schedule on the fly after the original schedule was torn to shreds.
Kalani Sitake has also been an important factor.
Wrubel is in his 29th season covering BYU and has been doing Cougar football play-by-play for 20 years. Since coming to Provo in 1984 to start his freshman year at BYU, Wrubell has seen many different teams and different coaches take the field at LaVell Edwards Stadium.
With the way the pandemic has forced changes to the season on a whim’s notice, Wrubell believes Sitake was the perfect coach to lead the Cougars through the constant changes — and at least one COVID-19 outbreak on the roster, forcing the cancellation of the Week 2 game at Army.
“He seems to have just the right makeup for this kind of season,” Wrubell said. “He’s calm, but he’s competitive and he’s someone around whom you can rally. I think Tom and Kalani deserve, obviously, tons of credit for getting their guys in a position to make it game to game and week to week and answer the bell every time out.”
Toward the end of last year, Sitake had his contract extended through the 2023 season. So, he was never in danger of being fired, but was definitely in need of a defining, breakout season. In spite of multiple pandemic-related obstacles that have shut down or hindered other programs through the nation, Sitake delivered a team and a season that was filled highlight reels and confidence-boosting wins.
His job on the field has been impressive enough that Sitake is now being considered for the open Arizona coaching gig. The day after the Wildcats were embarrassingly routed 70-7 by in-state rival Arizona State, coach Kevin Sumlin got the boot.
Of course, at the end of the day, it comes down to the players. And it’s not hard to make the case that this cast of Cougars was the most talented of Sitake’s tenure. NFL-caliber talent in some instances.
Starting at the line of scrimmage, both the offensive and defensive lines have shown much improvement this year. Particularly on offense, it has led to the breakout of a few different players.
The player who most blew up the scene this season has been quarterback Zach Wilson, who was even touted as a Heisman candidate for the majority of the season. Wilson, who’s thrown for 3,267 yards while completing 73% of his passes and is a Manning Award finalist, has been backed up by wide receiver Dax Milne and running back Tyler Allgeier.
Milne has tallied 1,118 yards and eight touchdowns on 63 receptions. Allgeier is just shy of having a 1,000 yard season, with 957 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns.
BYU has had multiple different pieces contribute to the team’s success this year. Add in the difficulties of playing through a pandemic, and it created a “once-in-a-generation type of season,” according to Wrubell.
Would the Cougars have gone 10-1 with their original schedule? Probably not. But they were dominant and impressive enough against the watered-down slate that it was fairly easy to envision the Cougars holding their own — and winning their share — against their originally scheduled opponents.
Wrubell puts this 2020 season in his Top Five, though that could change depending on the outcome of next week’s bowl game.
Yet, there’s no denying that BYU accomplished more than was expected before the season started.
Over the years, senior linebacker Isaiah Kaufusi said, there’s been a question mark surrounding the BYU program. People constantly ask if the Cougars are Power Five worthy, if they can compete with the biggest competition.
Kaufusi believes the Cougars have shown this season that they can play against anyone. And they will continue to try to prove themselves next week at the Boca Raton Bowl.
“I think that comment of proving ourselves is ‘we’re going to erase that question mark around BYU. We’re a good team, the program is in good hands and the program will continue to be great,’” Kaufusi said. “And that’s kind of what we have to prove right now.”
KALANI SITAKE’S COACHING RECORD
2016 • 9-4
2017 • 4-9
2018 • 7-6
2019 • 7-6
2020 • 10-1