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BYU hasn’t really risen or fallen as an indie. Does that change in 2019?

Kalani Sitake’s Cougars return all the pieces for their best offense in years, and they get lots of chances for marquee wins in September.

NCAA Football: Utah State at Brigham Young
Zach Wilson
Chris Nicoll-USA TODAY Sports

Bill C’s annual preview series of every FBS team in college football continues. Catch up here!

By August 2010, the First Summer of Realignment had already upturned the college football landscape. The Pac-10 had almost become the Pac-16, settling instead for a Pac-12 that included Colorado and Utah. Nebraska had announced it would move to the Big Ten, too, leaving the Big 12’s future rickety.

Just days before it was to begin the season with a win over Washington, BYU officially elected to join the fun. Challenged perhaps by rival Utah’s impending shift in status, the Cougars announced what they had been planning for a while: football independence.

The nine years since have been an almost nonstop existential crisis. And the program’s strange level of stability, reattained after a sudden and brief collapse in 2017 (the Cougars offense disintegrated, and they went 4-9), really hasn’t helped.

Since deciding to strike out alone, BYU attempted true national scheduling. As their official website will tell you, they have played teams from 20 different states and 12 different conferences.

  • They’ve played indie role model Notre Dame.
  • From the Big Ten, they’ve taken on or scheduled Michigan, Michigan State, Nebraska, Wisconsin, and Minnesota.
  • From the SEC, they’ve booked LSU, Missouri, Ole Miss, Mississippi State, and Tennessee.
  • From the Big 12, a conference they openly hope/hoped to one day join, they’ve played Texas, Baylor, and TCU.
  • From the ACC, they’ve played Virginia and Georgia Tech. From the Pac-12, they’ve played, well, pretty much everyone.

They’ve claimed their share of victories over these teams, too, most notably against Texas, and most recently at Wisconsin. Power conference teams visit Provo each year. A lot of them go home with a loss. (Granted, Utah never does. The Utes haven’t lost to BYU since realignment. I’m guessing fans of both schools have noticed.)

And yet, the experiment remains in limbo. It’s like the whole idea was to find out whether this program would sink or thrive, and it’s done neither.

Omitting what now looks like an outlier in 2017, here are BYU’s S&P+ rankings since going independent:

  • 2011: 43rd
  • 2012: 39th
  • 2013: 43rd
  • 2014: 35th
  • 2015: 44th
  • 2016: 46th
  • 2018: 46th

The offense has generally ranked in the sixties or seventies, the defense in the top 50, and the Cougars’ win total has been between seven and nine games almost every year. The independence experiment hasn’t produced a dominant new national brand, and it hasn’t produced a withering program. It’s produced Groundhog Day.

The 2018 season brought a spark, however. We’ll find out this fall if it’s real.

From a macro perspective, the Cougars’ time as an indie has been mostly stable. From a micro perspective, though, the last two years have been a roller coaster. After the collapse of 2017, head coach Kalani Sitake found himself on a bit of a hot seat. He replaced offensive coordinator Ty Detmer (a BYU legend and one of the worst offensive coordinator hires in recent FBS history) with Jeff Grimes, a onetime BYU assistant, a career offensive line coach, and a run game coordinator at many power conference schools.

NCAA Football: Brigham Young at Washington
Kalani Sitake
Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

Grimes was able to establish enough of an early identity that BYU was able to score road wins over both Arizona and Wisconsin, but blowout losses to Washington and Utah State, then coin-toss losses to NIU and Boise State, left the Cougars at 4-5 overall and 70th in S&P+. This was a rebound from 2017, sure, but it wasn’t an inspiring one.

Around this time, however, freshman quarterback Zach Wilson had entered the lineup in place of longtime starter Tanner Mangum. He looked pretty good against Boise State, torched UMass, and looked spectacular as BYU was building a 27-7 third-quarter lead at Utah. (He and the rest of the team looked less spectacular while blowing said lead and losing 35-27.) Then he put together one of the most brilliant bowl performances of all time, going 18-for-18 for 317 yards, four touchdowns, and a staggering 321.3 passer rating in a romp over Western Michigan.

Triggered by a resurgent offense, BYU rose 24 spots in S&P+ in November and the postseason. And now they bring back Wilson, most of his receiving corps, a veteran offensive line, and leading rusher Lopini Katoa, another 2018 freshman whose last game of the season was his best (he had 19 carries for 155 yards against NMSU before injuring his knee). Defensively, the Cougars have some depth issues to address in the front seven but return most of their secondary, and, well, the defense is rarely a problem.

With another solid defense and a high-ceilinged offense for once, is this the year that BYU figures out how to stand out a bit more than usual? The Cougars get Utah, USC, Washington, and Boise State all at home, plus a Week 2 road trip to Tennessee. If the Wilson we saw late in 2018 is the Wilson we’ll see moving forward, they’ll have all the opportunity in the world to make a true splash for once this fall.


To be sure, Wilson still looked like a freshman at times. He was just 12-for-26 against NMSU, the week before Utah, and overall he took far too many sacks — his 11.2 percent sack rate was nearly four times higher than Mangum’s (3.1). While on the script, he was brilliant (178.4 passer rating on first down), and when he needed to make a big throw, he struggled (120.2 on third down).

Still, he had exquisite polish for a freshman. And now the best part: he’s no longer a freshman.

BYU had one of the strangest, most equal-opportunity receiving corps I’ve ever seen last year, and most of it is back. Eleven different players caught between 10 and 29 passes, and no one caught more. Dylan Collie and tight end Dallin Holker are gone, but the other nine return, including seniors Aleva Hifo and Talon Shumway and perhaps the most dangerous weapon of all, tight end Matt Bushman.

NCAA Football: Brigham Young at Utah
Matt Bushman
Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

Shumway and Bushman were the only two receivers to average more than 12.8 yards per catch, and Bushman thrived late in the year, producing 13 of his 29 catches in the last three games. Shumway, meanwhile, was Wilson’s initial go-to guy, producing 12 of his 22 catches in Wilson’s first four starts. They are the most dangerous and important members of this passing game.

Before the passing game got going, however, BYU was still able to lean on the run game a bit more than it had in a while. The Cougars ranked 37th in rushing marginal efficiency, again with a strangely socialist approach. Four backs finished with between 59 and 91 carries, and while only one of them returns (Katoa), Sitake added two grad transfers (South Carolina’s Ty’Son Williams and Rice’s Emmanuel Esukpa) and a mid-three-star freshman (Jackson McChesney) this offseason. Senior Kavika Fonua returns from injury as well.

NCAA Football: Brigham Young at Arizona
Lopini Katoa
Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

If Katoa isn’t ready for go-to status, there are plenty of bodies to throw at the holes blockers are creating.

Said blockers should do a pretty good job, too. Those responsible for 52 of last year’s 65 line starts return, and while tackle Austin Hoyt is gone, he could be replaced by 2017 starter Thomas Shoaf. BYU was able to pretty quickly achieve some of the physical identity Grimes wanted to establish, and this lineup could get further down that road in 2019.

BYU has finished in the Off. S&P+ top 50 just once in the last nine seasons (41st in 2014), but it’s impossible not to feel pretty optimistic about this side clearing that bar. All the Cougars need is for Wilson to prove that what we saw last November and December is what we’ll see moving forward. (The “generally good quarterbacking” part, not the “never throwing an incompletion” thing.)


Perhaps as a product of constant offensive struggles, BYU’s defense was also far less successful than normal in 2017. The Cougars fell to 56th in Def. S&P+ that year after averaging a ranking of 31.9 over the previous eight seasons.

They bounced back to 33rd last fall. Offensive support, combined with a couple of breakout performances from seniors (linebacker Sione Takitaki and lineman Corbin Kaufusi combined for 18.5 tackles for loss, 11.5 sacks, and 31.5 run stuffs), allowed them to overcome some injury issues and rebound.

The linebacker unit was a revolving door, and most of the best defensive backs missed time, but in theory all that shuffling could pay off. BYU loses six linebackers who made at least 16 tackles in 2018, but three others return, and while star corner Michael Shelton is gone, the Cougars still have plenty of experience at that position.

NCAA Football: Utah State at Brigham Young
Isaiah Kaufusi
Chris Nicoll-USA TODAY Sports

As solid as BYU was, this wasn’t really the type of BYU defense we’ve come to know. The Cougars were 117th in stuff rate (run stops at or behind the line), 95th in sack rate, and a stunning 123rd in overall havoc rate. They reacted and pursued as well as ever, and they were aces at big-play prevention, but they weren’t nearly as disruptive as usual. Losing Kaufusi and Takitaki certainly won’t enhance their play-making ability, either.

There are still other Kaufusis, though. Isaiah, a junior, was third on the team with six TFLs, and Jackson, a redshirt freshman, passed a brief audition last fall. Including senior Zayne Anderson, who missed the final nine games with a shoulder injury, and former blue-chipper Chaz Ah You, it appears there is still plenty of upside in the linebacking corps. There usually is in Provo.

Plus, last year’s painfully young line is more experienced. Among the 10 linemen to see playing time were eight freshmen and sophomores; that goes a long way in explaining the lack of disruption up front. The top four tacklers return, and while Corbin Kaufusi’s absence at edge rusher could hurt, there’s potential among Uriah Leiataua and, yes, one more Kaufusi, sophomore Devin.

NCAA Football: California at Brigham Young
Dayan Ghanwoloku
Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

The secondary has the senior leadership the front seven mostly lacks. Safety Austin Lee is an outstanding last-line-of-defense type, and fellow seniors Chris Wilcox (CB), Troy Warner (safety), and Dayan Ghanwoloku (either one) return as well. Sitake signed a pair of three-star JUCO corners (Eric Ellison and Dimitri Gallow), too, though they might be more important in 2020 than 2019.

Special Teams

BYU’s special teams unit also collapsed in 2017, from 20th to 78th in Special Teams S&P+, and unlike the offense and defense, it didn’t rebound last fall. The legs were average, and the returns were unproductive. The return of kicker Jake Oldroyd from LDS mission could help, but there are still questions in basically every other piece of this unit.

2019 outlook

2019 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
29-Aug Utah 17 -7.2 34%
7-Sep at Tennessee 21 -9.8 29%
14-Sep USC 29 -2.6 44%
21-Sep Washington 15 -9.5 29%
28-Sep at Toledo 78 4.4 60%
12-Oct at USF 71 2.2 55%
19-Oct Boise State 24 -4.4 40%
2-Nov at Utah State 42 -4.4 40%
9-Nov Liberty 112 22.0 90%
16-Nov Idaho State NR 29.8 96%
23-Nov at Massachusetts 125 23.1 91%
30-Nov at San Diego State 54 -1.7 46%
Projected S&P+ Rk 50
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 66 / 43
Projected wins 6.5
Five-Year S&P+ Rk 5.1 (52)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 75
2018 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 1 / -1.9
2018 TO Luck/Game +1.1
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 63% (69%, 57%)
2018 Second-order wins (difference) 8.1 (-1.1)

S&P+ sees what it typically sees in BYU. Still weighing the Cougars’ 2017 collapse against them a bit, it projects them to slip slightly from 46th to 50th and win around seven games again.

With Mangum’s departure, though, it also sees lost production where it doesn’t really exist. If Wilson is indeed what he showed in the last five or so games of the season, then it would be in no way shocking to see BYU field top-50 units on both sides of the football. That probably means a top-35 or so overall product.

Wilson not only needs to back up last year’s great efforts, he needs to do it immediately. BYU’s schedules are almost always front-loaded, and 2019 is no different. Their four power conference foes all pop up within the first four weeks of the season.

Attendance took a hit a couple of years ago; being suddenly unable to score points indeed has a way of keeping people from showing up. With early home games against Utah, USC, and Washington, however, there is an opportunity to breathe new life and enthusiasm into this program.

You’ll need to win at least one of those games, however.

This is a big year for BYU. But we say that every season, I guess.

Team preview stats

All 2019 preview data to date.