BYU head coach Kalani Sitake inherited a successful program after being hired to replace Bronco Mendenhall, who took the Cougars to 11 consecutive bowl games.
With one regular season now in the books, there were a lot of positives from Sitake’s first season as an FBS head coach.
BYU won three games against Power Five opponents and were in every game up until the final minutes this season.
Along with on-the-field success, Sitake has found success energizing a BYU fan base that was growing stagnant with the previous regime. After an 8-4 regular season, Cougar fans are feeling excited about the future, but there were a lot of memorable moments worth highlighting.
Offensive MVP: Jamaal Williams, RB
After withdrawing from BYU and missing the entire 2015 season, Williams returned to BYU bigger, stronger, and faster than ever. He became the school’s all-time leading rusher and also set the single-game record against Toledo with 286 yards.
When BYU handed the ball off to Williams 25-30 times a game, odds were high that the Cougars would come away victorious. Williams was sidelined for much of the final five games of the season but is expected to be 100 percent healthy and ready to go for the Poinsettia Bowl against Wyoming.
Defensive MVP: Kai Nacua, S
Whenever BYU needed a game-changing play, Nacua was usually the guy to make it happen. The senior safety has intercepted five passes and is a big reason why the Cougars have recorded at least one pick in every game this season.
Best Freshman: Troy Warner, CB
Warner was a four-star prospect who held offers from all of the top programs out west before narrowing his choices to BYU and hometown USC. Warner signed with the Cougars and was excellent in his first season despite a nagging hamstring injury that led to him being in and out of the lineup over the first six games. A starter from day one, Warner has a bright future ahead in Cougar blue.
Best Newcomer: Thomas Shoaf, OT
Every year BYU has a lot of attrition on the roster due to a variety of reasons, but one significant reason is players serving LDS missions. Shoaf is one of those players, returning to BYU in the spring after serving on mission the past two years. Following an injury to starter Ului Lapuaho, Shoaf beat out Austin Hoyt for the job and was a bright spot on an offensive line that was inconsistent at times this season.
Best Play of the Season: Taysom Hill’s Game-Winning TD pass to Tanner Balderee in Double-Overtime vs. Mississippi State
It’s not often a SEC team shows up in Provo. In fact, October’s game was the first time since the same Mississippi State program traveled to play BYU in 2000. After the two teams tied in regulation and traded touchdowns in overtime, Hill found Balderee on a short pass on the Cougars' first play of the second extra period, and the tight end did the rest, taking it into the end zone for what wound up to be the game-winning score. Even though the loss dropped the Bulldogs to 2-4, it didn’t matter to the BYU students who stormed the field, relishing their team’s victory over an SEC foe.
Best Performance (Player): Jamaal Williams’ Record Night vs. Toledo
Williams set the BYU single-game record with 286 rushing yards on 30 carries (9.5 ypc) and scored five touchdowns (another record) in the Cougars 55-53 win over the Rockets from the MAC. Included in Williams’ record-setting effort were touchdown runs of 62 and 48 yards.
Best Game (Team): 31-17 Victory at Michigan State
The win over Michigan State hasn’t looked as glamorous with how the Spartans finished this season 3-9, but back in October with the Cougars as a touchdown underdog, to get a win over a program that was in the College Football Playoff a year ago was a big deal for a young coaching staff.
Defining Moment: Sticking with Taysom Hill after UCLA loss
It could have been easy for head coach Kalani Sitake and offensive coordinator Ty Detmer to pull the plug on Hill after an abysmal offensive performance against the Bruins and turn to the future in sophomore QB Tanner Mangum. But the young staff stuck with their senior and Hill provided many plays that gave BYU a chance to win ball games this season.
Biggest Surprise: Special Teams
Jonny Linehan has been terrific on punts this season for BYU and the kick coverage is ranked in the top 15 of the nation. But the biggest surprise of all within the special teams unit has been BYU’s kickers winning a pair of ball games against Arizona and Toledo.
Going into the season, BYU didn’t have a kicker to speak of but special teams coordinator Ed Lamb was creative with his kicking game and it has been successful this season.
Biggest Disappointment: Wide Receivers
Replacing three talented wide receivers from 2015 appeared to be a larger task than anyone would have thought entering this season. No BYU receiver has had a 100-yard game and the Cougars have struggled against physical cornerbacks who play at the line of scrimmage.
Senior That Will Be Missed the Most Next Season: Jamaal Williams, RB
At BYU, it’s not often the Cougars land players outside of the LDS faith. It’s even rarer when players have interruptions in their career at a unique place like BYU and still finish it out. Williams is a rare breed in the BYU world and he was a dynamite running back out of the backfield who should go on to have success in the NFL for years to come.
Player to Watch in 2017: Tanner Mangum, QB
Mangum took over for Taysom Hill in the 2015 season opener, but this fall he has observed the Cougars’ 8-4 campaign primarily from the sidelines. Mangum will start in the Poinsettia Bowl against Wyoming for an injured Hill once again, and it’ll be an opportunity for Mangum to generate some offseason buzz entering next season.
Biggest Offseason Question Mark: How Much Will BYU’s Offense Improve in Year Two of Ty Detmer’s Pro-Style Attack?
Year one of Detmer’s pro-style offense has led to mixed reviews. The slower-paced attack hasn’t produced the number of points a place like BYU expects with its storied history of offensive football.
Detmer is a legend around Provo since he won the Heisman Trophy 26 years ago. Because of his status, BYU fans have been patient in year one. If the offense doesn’t deliver more impressive outings in year two, how much will that patience be tested?
Expect Detmer to feel more comfortable as a play-caller next season now that he has a year of coaching at the college level under his belt.
— Written by Mitch Harper, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Harper is publisher of Rivals' BYU site, CougarNation.com, and also is the BYU reporter and insider for 1320 KFAN and co-host of "The Cougar Center" podcast. Follow him on Twitter @Mitch_Harper.