BYU enjoyed its most memorable season in 2020 since leaving the Mountain West Conference. The Cougars went 11-1 against a slate of teams thrown together on the fly and finished No. 11 in the AP Top 25. It marked BYU's highest number of victories and highest final ranking in a season since 1996.
Building off that success in 2021 won't be a simple task for head coach Kalani Sitake and company. Quarterback Zach Wilson declared for the NFL draft following an outstanding junior season. The Cougars also lost top offensive lineman Brady Christensen and top receiver Dax Milne. Offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes also departed for the same role at Baylor.
A typically challenging schedule awaits BYU with seven Power 5 opponents scheduled in 2021. Still there's hope BYU can avoid taking major steps backward in the season ahead. The Cougars return several playmakers on both sides of the ball and have developed a stronger winning culture within the program.
Here are three reasons why BYU fans can feel optimistic about the Cougars in 2021:
1. Experience abounds at quarterback
Replacing a quarterback of Zach Wilson's caliber is never easy. He threw for 3,692 yards and 33 touchdowns while completing 73.5 percent of his passes in his final season. Fortunately, BYU does have a pair of quarterbacks in Jaren Hall and Baylor Romney who have had significant snaps while backing up Wilson the past two seasons.
Romney has the edge in terms of experience. He boasts a 3-0 record as a starter, getting the Cougars victories over Boise State, Utah State, and Liberty while Wilson was sidelined with a thumb injury in 2019. In two seasons, Romney has thrown for 1,008 yards and eight touchdowns.
BYU coaches love what Hall brings to the table in terms of mobility and athleticism. He was Wilson's primary backup two years ago before being sidelined with injuries. Hall sat out in 2020 as well. If he gets back to full strength ahead of 2021, Hall can ignite the Cougar offense with a pleasing blend of running and passing abilities.
2. BYU has rising stars at the skill positions
Losing a player of Dax Milne's caliber hurts. He was BYU's first 1,000-yard receiver since Cody Hoffman in 2013 after finishing with 1,188 and eight touchdowns on 70 catches. But that doesn't mean that the cupboard is bare when it comes to offensive playmakers.
Tyler Allgeier enjoyed a breakout season in the backfield. At one time, Allgeier switched from running back to linebacker before moving back to offense full time at the end of 2019. He quickly emerged as an electrifying runner in 2020. Allgeier racked up 1,130 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns while averaging 7.5 yards per carry. Lopini Katoa also returns. Katoa is a capable runner and receiver who complements Allgeier in the backfield.
Gunner Romney and Isaac Rex will give the passing game a punch in 2021. Romney was slowed a bit by injuries, but he still managed to pile up 767 yards on 39 receptions. He had four 100-yard games in 2020. Rex showed he can be a capable successor to Matt Bushman at tight end. He led BYU with 12 touchdown catches and finished with 429 yards on 37 receptions overall. Dallin Holker, who returns from a two-year mission, will give added depth at tight end. Holker totaled 235 yards on 19 receptions as a freshman in 2018.
3. The Cougars have quality depth on defense
Khyiris Tonga and Isaiah Kaufusi are two defensive stars BYU will miss in 2021. Still, the Cougars bring back many rising stars on that side of the ball.
Linebacker is a particular position of strength for BYU. Payton Wilgar, Keenan Pili, and Max Tooley anchor that unit. All three finished among the top five in total tackles and combined for 173 tackles and 10 tackles for a loss between them. Wilgar, specifically, has made a name for himself over the past two seasons as a ball hawk who is a disruptive force on defense. If Chaz Ah You stays healthy in 2021, he is a legitimate future NFL prospect at linebacker.
George Udo could become a new leader in the secondary in 2021. Udo had 25 tackles, 5.5 TFL, and three sacks during a breakout sophomore campaign. Tyler Batty also looks to be a future star along the defensive line after recording a team-high four sacks and 5.5 TFL during his freshman season.
— Written by John Coon, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Coon has more than a decade of experience covering sports for different publications and outlets, including The Associated Press, Salt Lake Tribune, ESPN, Deseret News, MaxPreps, Yahoo! Sports, and many others. Follow him on Twitter @johncoonsports.
(Top photo courtesy of @BYUfootball)