Sizing up BYU football in 2016 is an interesting proposition. BYU says goodbye to Bronco Mendenhall, who won a lot of games in his 11 years in Provo, and the Cougars then say hello to first-time head coach Kalani Sitake, who makes up for his lack of head coach experience in the fact that he knows the culture of BYU football.
As for what some publications think in regards to BYU’s prospects for this coming season, the Cougars come in at No. 47 in Athlon Sports’ rankings of all 128 FBS programs.
The last two seasons BYU has flown up the rankings after quick starts that had the nation buzzing about the Cougars potentially being a College Football Playoff crasher. Obviously, BYU didn’t get anyone near the Playoff in 2014 or ‘15, but the Cougars have been acquiring some nice talent at the top of their roster and looked primed to make a splash with a difficult schedule this fall.
With BYU falling outside of Athlon’s Top 25, here is a case for why the Cougars could end up there before all is said and done.
How many schools around the country can say they have two quarterbacks who they feel not only can win a lot of games but also win enough to say you’re a top 25 team? Not many. BYU, however, is one of those teams.
Both Taysom Hill and Tanner Mangum would be quarterbacks that any school would love to have, BYU is blessed to have both and first-year offensive coordinator Ty Detmer will have the tall order of choosing who will be the starter during fall camp. Right now, Mangum has the upper hand because he was healthy during spring practices while Hill continues to recover from the foot injury he suffered in the season opener against Nebraska last year. If Hill is healthy in fall camp, I’d expect that he wins the job in camp and is BYU’s starter against Arizona on Sept. 3. Again, it’s a good problem to have.
When you look at BYU’s schedule in 2016, aside from the UCLA game, the Cougars have the edge at the quarterback position in every game. You also could make the case for BYU having the edge against UCLA as well. Mangum outplayed UCLA’s Josh Rosen in Pasadena a year ago. Rosen had his worst game as a Bruin against BYU.
BYU’s quarterbacks are as good as advertised and this alone might give BYU a strong enough case to be a top-25 team.
2. Foundation of winning and new energy
When Kalani Sitake took over he made it clear that BYU was not a program that was broken or needed fixing. Sitake knew that his current school had been winning a lot of games over the last 11 years under previous head coach Bronco Mendenhall. BYU is one of only 10 programs since 2005 to post a .500 record or better in all those seasons. Hard to ignore the success of the past plus a new excitement that BYU was sorely lacking in recent seasons.
3. Improved defensive line
BYU’s run defense last season was average at best. The Cougars gave up nearly 150 yards per game on the ground, and now BYU has to replace Bronson Kaufusi, who was taken in the third round by the Baltimore Ravens in last month’s NFL Draft. But don’t sleep on BYU’s defensive front, particularly the defensive line, this fall.
Ilaisa Tuiaki (aka “Coach E”) comes to BYU as the Cougars’ new defensive coordinator. Sitake brought Tuiaki with him from Oregon State. Tuiaki also had served as Sitake’s defensive line coach while the two were at Utah.
Sitake and Tuiaki have had success over the years, particularly at Utah, producing defensive linemen that went on to the NFL. BYU will be switching to a 4-3 scheme and the Cougars’ defensive linemen will be asked to do a lot more in Tuiaki’s defense, but the Cougars have the horses to do it. Travis Tuiloma is expected to man the middle and should flourish in this new scheme, and he will be paired with one of the nation’s top junior college transfers in Handsome Tanielu, who turned down the likes of Utah and Texas to play in Sitake and Tuiaki’s defense in Provo.
Any great college football team needs to be stout in the trenches and BYU should be much improved in that area this fall.
4. Schedule will pose great opportunities
BYU’s schedule in 2016 is a bear. It just is. The great thing for BYU assembling this difficult schedule in 2016 is that it’ll give the Cougars numerous opportunities to not only start the season like they have the past few seasons in the top 25 but also bounce back in and potentially finish the year ranked. BYU hasn’t been a part of the final AP Top 25 since 2009 when the Cougars finished 12th.
BYU plays six Power Five teams and a pair of programs in Cincinnati and Boise State that are jockeying for and feel worthy of a spot in one of the major conferences. If there was ever a year where you could say BYU has a schedule similar to a P5 team, this would be the year.
— 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.