BYU football’s 2020 success should extend to 2021, even if record doesn’t show it

The Cougars will retain the majority of their talent, but will once again face tougher opponents.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Brigham Young Cougars quarterback Zach Wilson (1) celebrates the win with Brigham Young Cougars linebacker Isaiah Kaufusi (53) and Brigham Young Cougars running back Lopini Katoa (4) as BYU hosts San Diego State, NCAA football in Provo on Saturday, December 12, 2020.

BYU finished the 2020 football season having only endured one loss (11-1) — a feat only accomplished five other times, but a first in the Cougars’ independence era. BYU’s success served as a beacon of hope through the pandemic-stricken season.

But now the question remains: Can the Cougars provide similar, if not better, results next season?

Yes, but it may not look like it on paper.

The Cougars will be back to business as usual next year (or at least should be, assuming this pandemic starts calming down) and will once more have a strong schedule. As of right now, BYU is set to host Arizona State, Boise State, Virginia, Utah, South Florida and Idaho State. The Cougars will travel to USC, Baylor, Washington State, Georgia Southern and Utah State, as well as play Arizona on a neutral site.

The overall record may take a few hits, but the Cougars should still have enough talent and depth to have a good season next year.

For BYU coach Kalani Sitake, wins and losses don’t matter. It’s all about the progress they make as a program.

“I know that’s what fans look at, but for me, I’m seeing a lot of progress made over the last few years,” Sitake said. “We were really excited about this season because we knew we had a deep team, and we had it tested often. So I was really proud of our players, and I think this is going to be a huge step for a lot of young guys that made a lot of plays and that have bright futures here at BYU. We’re going to have to lean on them heavily as we go into the next season.”

One of the biggest headlines out of BYU this last fall was the breakout performance of Zach Wilson. The junior garnered attention from national college football analysts, NFL players and more.

Wilson showed a glimpse of the success he would bring his freshman year, when he closed out the 2018 season at the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl with 317 yards and four touchdowns while completing all of his pass attempts.

Struggling with injuries, Wilson had an up-and-down 2019 season and was backed up heavily by Jaren Hall and Baylor Romney.

But that all changed this year.

While the pandemic-forced quarantine slowed down some people, it inspired Wilson to work on his game, driving out to California nearly every weekend to work out with John Beck at 3DQB. His progress was immediately noticeable.

Having been projected as a high NFL draft prospect, possibly the second quarterback picked behind Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence, it seems like Wilson played his last game as a Cougar already.

Following the Boca Raton Bowl win, Wilson said the thing he’ll take away from the postseason game is the love they all had for each other, but also teased the upcoming changes to the roster.

“The excitement that we had to play this game was special,” Wilson said. “Just looking around and soaking it all in was the coolest part. We’ll never have the same team again, with guys taking off next year, and things are always different. I love these guys, and that was the best part, that we came out with that excitement and energy, and guys were excited to play.”

So, should Wilson leave, who picks up the torch?

The answer could be either Romney or Hall, but it may very well be Jacob Conover.

Conover was part of BYU’s 2019 recruiting class and left for a church mission shortly after. He returned home as the COVID-19 pandemic spread across the world.

Conover, a four-star recruit with a 90.05 247Sports Composite Rating, is a product of Arizona powerhouse Chandler High School — and former teammate of standout wide receiver Gunner Romney. With a resemblance to Wilson on the field, Conover may very well pick up where Wilson left off.

However, one of the Cougars’ other success stories of the 2020 season has been the stout offensive line that allowed Wilson to go off and pad his stats.

While the majority of the O-line is expected to return, left tackle Brady Christensen may leave for bigger waters, especially after earning Associated Press All-America First Team accolades on Monday. (BYU kicker Jake Oldroyd received third-team All-America honors from AP voters.)

Christensen has earned first-team All-America recognition from six sponsoring organizations this postseason, becoming the first Cougar to earn multiple first-team All-America honors since 2009 consensus All-America tight end Dennis Pitta.

The Cougars could stand to lose more than a dozen seniors along with juniors Wilson and Christensen, but should have the depth to stay competitive.

With the tougher schedule, however, BYU may not be able to showcase its talent the way it was able to throughout the 2020 season.

“I think it’s going to keep going from here,” Wilson said. “It’s been an exciting year of 2020, but also tons of ups and downs. Great way to finish [the season] this way, but this offense is just going to keep improving into next year and the year after that. We got some great coaches and great players around that are used to the scheme and know what we’re asking for. So, it’s been an exciting year, but we’re going to keep growing on for next year.”