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BYU has become one of college football’s steadiest programs, for better and worse

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The Cougars aren’t moving down, but they aren’t moving up either. Yet.

Poinsettia Bowl - BYU v Wyoming Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

This preview published May 8 and has since been updated.

The completion of the 2016 college football season gave me 12 full years of play-by-play data (2005-16) to use for my S&P+ ratings. The number of teams in FBS has varied throughout that time period, but ranking among the top 55 has always assured a spot in the upper half of the rankings.

Twelve teams have ranked in said upper half in all 12 seasons:

  • Boise State (best: first in 2010, worst: 54th in 2005)
  • BYU (best: ninth in 2006; worst: No. 54th in 2011)
  • Clemson (best: second in 2015 and 2016; worst: 41st in 2011)
  • Florida (best: first in 2006 and 2009; worst: 33rd in 2011 and 2013)
  • Florida State (best: first in 2013; worst: 50th in 2008)
  • LSU (best: first in 2011; worst: 24th in 2008)
  • Ohio State (best: first in 2014; worst: 35th in 2011)
  • Oklahoma (best: first in 2008; worst: 27th in 2013)
  • Penn State (best: fourth in 2005; worst: 52nd in 2013)
  • TCU (best: fifth in 2009; worst: 50th in 2013)
  • USC (best: first in 2005; worst: 34th in 2009)
  • Wisconsin (best: 10th in 2009 and 2011; worst: 42nd in 2006)

Alabama (57th in 2007) couldn't pull it off. Georgia's (68th in 2016) and Oregon’s (74th) both ended last year.

55th isn't the highest bar, but for the most part this is a pretty accurate list of college football's steadiest programs. It includes nearly every non-Bama champion since 2006 (Florida, LSU, Florida State, Ohio State, and now Clemson). It includes the Big 12's (Oklahoma) and Pac-12's (USC) heaviest heavyweights. It features the two programs that have done the mid-major power thing better than anybody else (Boise State and former mid-major TCU). It includes two Big Ten programs (Wisconsin and Penn State) that have combined for six conference titles or co-titles in the last 12 years.

The list also includes BYU.

It’s time for my BYU preview, which means it’s time for my annual existential look at the BYU football program.

2015:

No matter what portion of history you want to view -- last five, 10, 30, 50 years -- BYU's résumé compares favorably to at least half of the power-conference universe, probably more. [...]

I think this independence thing is going to work. Now the Cougars need to keep winning their share of these big games.

2016:

In five years as an independent, BYU never won fewer than eight games and three times ranked in the S&P+ top 40. [...]

In a revealing offseason interview, Bronco Mendenhall said he didn't think BYU's football independence was viable long-term. And in what may have been a surprising response, AD Tom Holmoe more-or-less agreed. But whatever "long-term" means, BYU is attempting to prove itself with brutal early-season scheduling. [...]

The Sitake hire is fiercely important for the future. Sustainable for 50 years or not, BYU is independent right now and has a chance to prove itself in 2016 and beyond.

Status and future, status and future, status and future. Every team preview touches on these things to some degree, but BYU previews are incredibly formulaic in that regard. But it’s hard to avoid talking about it. When BYU’s own AD admits that the future is blurry, you talk about it.

But a preview is also going to become formulaic when the team itself becomes rather consistently formulaic. The Cougars almost always rank between 40th and 80th in Off. S&P+ and between 25th and 50th in Def. S&P+. And in six seasons as an independent, they are 14-17 against Power 5 teams, 8-8 against the best mid-majors, and 30-1 against everybody else.

In 2016, they went 3-3, 1-1, and 5-0, respectively.

If you wanted to, you could simply look at BYU’s schedule, which features four power conference opponents, one top mid-majors, and eight others, and casually predict a 10-3 record (2-3 against good teams, 8-0 against the others) and call it a day. You might be right to do so. But stopping there isn’t really my m.o.

Perhaps the fact that 2016 was a ‘typical’ BYU season was a positive sign. After all, the Cougars were breaking in a first-time head coach (Kalani Sitake), a first-time college offensive coordinator (Ty Detmer), and a first-time defensive coordinator (Ilaisa Tuiaki). They were also dealing with a redesigned receiving corps and a potentially awkward quarterback situation (2014’s starter and 2015’s starter both returning).

Last year’s Cougars looked so much like a BYU team under completely new guidance might have been a hint of further upside down the line. That they lost four games by a combined eight points reinforces that.

If you can withstand turnover and maintain your previous level of play, you might be well-positioned for growth. But BYU has established one of the most stable reputations in the country. What growth is possible? There are worse things in the world than consistently playing at a top-40ish level. But can Sitake bring something more to Provo?


2016 in review

2016 BYU statistical profile.

The typical BYU indie schedule features big names in September, medium names in October, and lesser names late. That is certainly the case this coming fall — five of the first seven opponents are projected 45th or better in S&P+, and each of the last six are 100th or worse — and it was the case last fall. September featured Arizona, Utah, UCLA, West Virginia, and Toledo. November featured Southern Utah and UMass.

If BYU were ever to make a run at an undefeated season and CFP-level bid, it would be interesting to see how this unfolds. A 12-0 or 13-0 BYU season would feature big wins in September and likely a high-ranking debut in the CFP rankings. It would then feature some leakage as big P5 teams knock each other off, and BYU seemingly beats UMass each week.

But we’re not there yet. So far, BYU Septembers have featured tight, competitive games that affirm the Cougars as a top-40 program but add blemishes to the loss column. That was certainly the case in 2016.

Of the first eight games of 2016, seven were against teams in the S&P+ top 60, and seven were decided by one possession — in some instances, the final play. BYU went 4-4 in these games, then surged against four lesser opponents. Adjusting for opponent, the level of play didn’t change all that much throughout; BYU was a little better late but was mostly the same team, at least on offense.

  • First 8 games (4-4): Avg. percentile performance: 57% | Avg. yards per play: Opp 6.0, BYU 5.3 (minus-0.7)
  • Last 5 games (5-0): Avg. percentile performance: 73% | Avg. yards per play: BYU 5.6, Opp 4.6 (plus-1.0)

With an athletic advantage, BYU’s defense started to look like BYU’s customary defense. The offense, meanwhile, remained about the same. With Tanner Mangum taking back over for Taysom Hill as starting quarterback, there’s potential for change, better or worse.


Offense

BYU offensive radar

Full advanced stats glossary.

Ty Detmer finished his legendary BYU playing career with 15,031 passing yards and minus-366 rushing yards. He was elusive at times and did score 14 rushing touchdowns, but he wasn’t what one might call a dual-threat.

It would stand to reason, then, that he might find it pretty natural working with Mangum.

That’s not to say he didn’t find a decent rhythm with Hill in 2016, his first year in charge of the BYU attack. BYU’s success rate improved from 61st to 37th in success rate with the oft-injured dual-threat, and Detmer found a decent balance between employing the pass and utilizing Hill’s mobility — Hill attempted 32.8 passes per game (including sacks as passes) while rushing 9.7 times, a ratio of 3.4 passes for every rush.

Mangum made his debut in 2015 when Hill got hurt; his pass-to-run ratio: 14.4. Mangum moved back to the second string in 2016, receiving most of his action in a blowout win over Southern Utah and in a bowl monsoon against Wyoming. But combined with the loss of leading rusher Jamaal Williams and the top three receivers, the identity of the BYU is going to change pretty dramatically this fall, one way or another.

The junior-to-be will turn 24 at the beginning of the season; this will be the first time he enters a season expecting to start. As a freshman in 2015, he experienced the drastic ups and downs you might expect from a high-upside passer. Against UCLA, Michigan, and Utah, he produced a 92.0 passer rating with a 51 percent completion rate; against Nebraska, Boise State, and Utah State, he was at 171.4 and 58 percent, respectively.

If experience leads to stability ... actually, let rephrase that. Experience better lead to stability because after a late-August warmup against Portland State, Mangum will face the LSU, Utah, and Wisconsin defenses consecutively. Utah State, Boise State, and Mississippi State await after that. That’s a lot of impressive defensive personnel right there.

There’s good news and bad news regarding the supporting cast. We’ll make a good/bad news sandwich:

  • Bad news: Jamaal Williams is gone. The running back had a breakout senior year alongside Hill, rushing for 1,375 yards with above average efficiency and awesome explosiveness. He was basically BYU’s only big-play weapon last year, and while backups Squally Canada and KJ Hall matched him from an efficiency standpoint, they brought nowhere near the explosiveness to the table. If the Cougars can find a role for bouncy junior Trey Dye, that might help open things up a bit. Regardless, no go-to option emerged this spring.
  • Good news: Most of the line returns. Eight linemen started at least two games last year, and six return. Four seniors have combined for 92 career starts (including three-year starting center Tejan Koroma), and youngsters like sophomore tackle Thomas Shoaf have potential. Throw in high-three-star redshirt freshman Kieffer Longson and JUCO transfer John Taipe Vaka, and you’ve likely got yourself an awesome two-deep. [Update: The Cougars also added James Empey, a former Utah signee who’s returning from his mission, and Notre Dame four-star center Tristen Hoge, who’s hoping to be eligible this year.]
  • Bad news: One returning wideout caught more than 11 passes last year. Last year’s top three (Nick Kurtz, Mitchell Juergens, Colby Pearson) are gone, and while they didn’t bring just a ton of upside to the table, they did combine for a 65 percent catch rate. BYU has all the tight ends it could want (namely Moroni Laulu-Pututau and Tanner Balderee), but the Cougars lost three of their top four WRs last year, too. It’s hard to avoid at least temporary regression when you double dip.

BYU almost perfectly average last year when it comes to run-pass rates on standard and passing downs. One assumes Detmer might want to lean more on the pass, but that will depend on whether he has the receivers to do so.

Defense

BYU defensive radar

Sitake is rarely associated with bad defenses, and BYU was at least half-awesome on defense in 2016. The Cougars were as dynamic as ever against the run, ranking seventh in Rushing S&P+ and 14th in Adj. Line Yards. Opponents almost never carved out more than four yards at a time on BYU, and if they couldn’t pass, they couldn’t move the ball.

If they could pass, though, they probably moved the ball just fine. BYU ranked 77th in Passing S&P+. UCLA, West Virginia, Toledo, and Boise State combined for a 160.2 passer rating, a 72 percent completion rate, and 33.3 points per game (and went 3-1) against the Cougars. Everybody else: 116.5 passer rating, 59 percent completion rate, 13.4 points per game, and a 1-8 record.

BYU was ultra-young at cornerback, so this makes some sense. Dayan Ghanwoloku and Troy Warner were two of the top three, and they were both freshmen. So were reserves Chris Wilcox and Austin McChesney. Ghanwoloku and Warner combined for 14 passes defensed, which is an encouraging sign of upside (as are their recruiting rankings — Ghanwoloku was high-three-star, Warner four).

That upside is important, as they’ll be without Kai Nacua, a play-maker and security blanket at free safety. Seniors Micah Hannemann and Matt Hadley are back, but youngsters like sophomore Austin Lee and four-star freshman Chaz Ah You could be in the rotation sooner than later.

More importantly, four of the top five linemen are also gone. There’s plenty of physically imposing talent remaining — junior end Corbin Kaufusi (6’9, 285 pounds), junior tackle Tevita Mo’Unga (6’3, 330), senior tackle Kesni Tausinga (6’1, 300), plus everybody’s favorite freshman, 417-pound Motekiai Langi — but this will be a greener unit.

That means an experienced linebacking corps will be asked to clean up some messes. Fred Warner, Butch Pau’u, and Francis Bernard (combined: 23 TFLs, five sacks, seven interceptions, nine breakups, four forced fumbles) might be dynamic enough to do just that.


Special Teams

Losing Garrett Juergens means losing both a solid possession receiver and an efficient punt returner. He was a key piece of BYU’s 20th ranked special teams unit, but at least Jonny Linehan is back. The New Zealander and former rugby player averaged 42.5 yards per punt with minimal returns. Just keep him out of ill-advised fake punts, and he’s a major weapon. Kicker Rhett Almond, meanwhile, is at least strong inside of 40 yards.


2017 outlook

2017 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
26-Aug Portland State NR 37.1 98%
2-Sep vs. LSU 4 -18.5 14%
9-Sep Utah 45 2.3 55%
16-Sep Wisconsin 11 -11.3 26%
29-Sep at Utah State 73 4.0 59%
7-Oct Boise State 29 -1.5 47%
14-Oct at Mississippi State 30 -6.3 36%
21-Oct at East Carolina 100 11.6 75%
28-Oct San Jose State 105 18.1 85%
4-Nov at Fresno State 115 14.9 81%
11-Nov at UNLV 118 15.5 81%
25-Nov Massachusetts 111 19.2 87%
25-Nov at Hawaii 109 13.8 79%
Projected S&P+ Rk 46
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 83 / 23
Projected wins 7.4
Five-Year S&P+ Rk 9.4 (29)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 55 / 67
2016 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 12 / 8.8
2016 TO Luck/Game +1.2
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 52% (34%, 70%)
2016 Second-order wins (difference) 9.1 (-0.1)

It’s possible that the biggest loss of 2016 happened off the field. BYU’s directionless — not bad, just neither up nor down — independent existence made Cougar administrators and faithful hopeful that a Big 12 bid would come soon. But as I wrote in my recent Houston preview, if you’re counting on the Big 12 to light your way forward, your plan is flawed. The Big 12 once again elected to do a bright, flaming pile of nothing.

Granted, cord-cutting might lead to a shift in what drives conference realignment in the future, but needless to say, the Big 12 is no more well-positioned to exist in the future than it was a year ago. And barring a drastic change in the Pac-12’s plans, that means BYU either remains independent or move to a Group of 5 conference.

For the short term, that means independence. It means splitting with a few major conference teams and finishing each season with a run of wins over smaller programs and playing in a minor bowl. There are worse existences, to be sure.

Even though BYU rarely changes in terms of overall quality, there’s at least potential for change, one way or the other. On the pessimistic side, BYU’s running game is starting over, a passing quarterback has to break in new receivers, and the defensive line is rebuilding.

On the optimistic side, though, Mangum is an experienced, potentially steady hand with a good line in front of him, the secondary is more seasoned than it was last year, and a Sitake front seven is almost always disruptive, no matter the experience. I lean optimistic, but wow, is that early stretch of opposing defenses impressive. How much of a load can Mangum carry early on?

BYU is projected 46th in S&P+, though that’s a little artificially low because it doesn’t take Mangum’s 2015 experience into account and just sees Hill’s lost production. So basically, adjust for that, and BYU’s looking at a No. 50-75 offense and a No. 20-30 defense. And probably eight to 10 wins. Same old, same old, huh?

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