Catch up on previous 2020 opponent previews!
One of my favorite things about college football is the programs that have a lot more obstacles to comb over. We’ve talked about one previously in this series in Eastern Michigan. Believe it or not, BYU is another tough gig.
Why do I view it as a tough program to maintain? It’s certainly not location: Provo consistently ranks in the Top 100 places to live in the country and has a tremendous view of the Wasatch Mountains. But the issues come with what the school’s founding values and what it currently represents. If you’d like to attend BYU, it’s a good idea for you to be Mormon. It’s certainly not a requirement, but you’re going to get a Mormon education and that can dissuade certain individuals from being interested. In addition, the student population is 81% white, with less than 1% black. The school recently started a committee to investigate the issue of race and inequality on campus after black students reported a constant use of hate speech directed at them and that a white supremacist group is actively recruiting on campus. These issues are certainly not new and something that the school has struggled with for years.
From a football standpoint, BYU is no longer affiliated with a conference and has to rely on its own tv network to try and keep up with the P5 conferences (spoiler: it’s not going well). It also means that they need to slap together odd schedules with teams from all over the country to try and fill out 12 games. And because they aren’t conference-affiliated, it makes it very tough for them to have a shot at the Playoff. Certainly the Playoff isn’t the be-all-end-all for playing college football, but if you want high-caliber athletes they tend to want to play for championships...which BYU can’t offer. They do have a National Championship from 1984, but that has the same relevance to today’s football recruits as your GPA has on your job interview.
On top of all of that, Mormon male students are strongly required to serve as missionaries for two years out in the world. That means that a kid recruited in 2018 isn’t making it to campus until 2020. So while it does mean that BYU tends to field a team full of older guys who are married with kids, it also means that any reinforcements they get through recruiting won’t hit the trenches until at least two years later.
But they still do well! Since 2010, they’ve won 8 games or more six times and have only had one losing season. Granted, that losing season was a mere three years ago, and the current staff has only won more than 8 games once, but BYU is still a tough team to play against.
You might remember the last time Missouri played BYU; it was certainly an eventful week! We don’t need to rehash it here, but once again the Tigers will be playing the Cougars during a tumultuous time. Of course, this time, it’s quite a bit more impactful and widespread than just the campus on Columbia.
Here’s what BYU did in 2019:
BYU had one of the toughest opening four-game stretches you can imagine: four Top 30 teams in the first four games! They went 2-2 and the possibilities for the 2019 season were endless...until quarterback Zach Wilson broke his hand. They dropped two clunkers to two of the worst teams on their schedule but rallied to win 5 games — 3 with Wilson back — before getting snuffed out by San Diego State and boat raced by Hawai’i. The Cougars return 70% of their production from last year, good for 43rd in the country, and if they can keep Wilson healthy, they should be a dangerous match up every week.
Head Coach: Kalani Sitake - 5th Year - 27-25
Sitake is about as Utah as you can get. He played fullback for the Cougars, got his start at Eastern Arizona, then went back to BYU, then to Southern Utah, then spent a decade at Utah before briefly working at Oregon State and turning that into the BYU gig.
He had a ton of success with Kyle Whittingham and the Utes, consistently churning out Top 35 defenses. He hasn’t been able to consistently do that in Provo (yet), but certainly understands the limitations and culture of the school and is adequately set up to successfully recruit and coach the Cougars.
Jeff Grimes - Offensive Coordinator: Grimes was a career offensive line coach at Auburn, Virginia Tech and LSU before Sitake gave him the OC gig in 2018. He has yet to produce an offense that ranks better than 65th, so the jury is still out on if he’s the best fit. He does do what Sitake wants him to do, however: use BYU’s strengths of size and maturity to pound the rock and make safe choices.
Ilaisa Tuiaki - Defensive Coordinator: Just like his boss, Tuiaki has been a fixture in the state of Utah, coaching at Utah State and Utah before joining Sitake for his year sojourn to Oregon State and then following him back to Provo. Tuiaki’s tenure has been up and down: if he has a solid secondary, his defenses rank in the Top 40, but without that asset they hover at 56th or 57th.
Ed Lamb - Special Teams Coordinator
Aaron Roderick - Quarterback
Harvey Unga - Running Backs
Fesi Sitake - Wide Receivers
Steve Clark - Tight Ends
Eric Mateos - Offensive Line
Jernaro Gilford - Cornerbacks
Preston Hadley - Safeties
Efficiency, efficiency, efficiency. The Cougars were 28th in success rate, 27th in overall efficiency, and ranked in the Top 40 in both rushing and passing success rates/efficiency rates. BYU doesn’t wow you with circus catches or huge 20-yard runs down the field; instead, they’re content to pummel a defense over and over with big dudes, run smart route concepts that free guys up to make an easy catch and get the yardage needed, and have quarterback Zach Wilson make a play in third-and-long situations. It’s a boring formula but it can absolutely frustrate the hell out of a defense, wear them out, and cause them to gamble and give up a big play or two. And I do mean one or two; BYU’s overall explosiveness was 87th, 80th on the ground and 85th through the air. Despite their inability to gain huge chunks of yards, the Cougars do return 77% of last year’s offense - good for 26th in the nation - and should have familiar faces and a familiar formula to move the ball down the field.
Quarterback - Zach Wilson - Junior
Dubbed the “Mormon Manziel” from his erratic, free-wheeling style on the field, Wilson entered the 2019 season with lofty expectations, despite missing all of spring practice while getting surgery on his throwing shoulder. And in the first four games, all against SP+ Top 30 teams, he performed well: 62% completion rate, 1,312 yards through the air, and 5 passing touchdowns. Then he injured his throwing hand in a last minute loss against Toledo and had surgery, missing the next three games. He came back but wasn’t the same after, not even eclipsing 1,000 yards in the next five games and throwing just as many interceptions as touchdowns. He’s back for his junior year and presumably, healthy. A fully weaponized Zach Wilson is tough to bring down and tough to rattle, as he’s shifty enough to elude pass rushers and generally aware and accurate enough to hit the right guy to keep the chains moving. As a passer he doesn’t go deep often, preferring to be efficient and keep the success rate up, while as a runner he doesn’t just tuck and run at the slightest whisper of pressure, instead choosing to elude inside the pocket to buy time. He’s a frustrating guy to play against when you don’t have a solid pass rush - like Missouri in 2020 - and has plenty of familiar faces to throw to which will make him even deadlier.
Running Back - Lopini Katoa - Junior
The bad news: BYU returns 3 of their 5 young running backs. The good news: none of them were very good. Katoa is their returning leading rusher but only managed 358 yards and 4 touchdowns last year. In fact, all five backs in 2019 combined for 1,445 yards and 13 touchdowns and seemingly operated on a “hot hand goes” system. Regardless, BYU recruits a specific type of runner: big, burly dudes who plod along - all are over 6 feet tall and over 200 pounds - and don’t make explosive plays. The line was great at getting them five yards but none of them did anything in the open field (80th in explosiveness) and Katoa was the ploddiest of the plodders, barely averaged 2 yards per carry on a team-worst 40% success rate. Jackson McChesney was a small-sample dynamo, racking up over 250 yards on 25 carries and a 68% success rate as a freshman. He could add some much needed lightning to the stable of thunder that BYU currently has.
Tight End - Matt Bushman - Senior
That a tight end is the leading returning receiver with 688 yards to his name tells you exactly what you need to know about BYU’s passing game. The Cougars lose 3 of their top 4 receivers from a passing attack that ranked 33rd in the country but 85th in explosiveness. The Cougars’ approach in passing has been to flood the field with guys they know can catch the ball and just make the safe throw to slowly move down the field. They return Bushman and two junior receivers: Dax Milne and Gunner Romney (yes, of that Romney family). Behind them is a slew of freshman, some who had a few targets last year and some who are fresh off of their missions. If the passing game is going to click, Bushman, Milne and Romney will have to carry the attack themselves until the younger guys get acclimated. Luckily, the Cougar coaching staff isn’t asking any of these guys to be dynamic, game-breaking receivers, so in theory, any of them can step in and provide the same level of production as last year.
When I think of BYU, I think of a punishing defense, lead by gargantuan Samoan linemen and suffocating offenses with a devastating 3-4 defense. And that was basically the formula for 2019: BYU ranked 15th in the country in defending explosive plays, 5th (!) against the running game and 13th in standard downs. The problem, though, was that opponents could pass pretty well against the secondary — the Cougars were 62nd against the pass — and consistently let running backs get 3-4 yards per carry. Add to that a surprisingly poor pass rush (112th in sacks!) and you have a defense that was on the field for too long to notice their incredible strengths, essentially turning every offense they played against into the BYU offense. They return 62% of their defensive production — 72nd in the nation — with the majority of the departures from the defensive secondary. It could be a rerun of 2019 for the 2020 Cougar defense.
Defensive Line - Khyiris Tonga - Senior
The returning leading tackler on the line is the absolutely massive nose tackle Khyiris Tonga, coming in at 6’4” and 321 pounds. 3-4 defensive lines typically don’t feature a lot of disruption as they are mostly used to absorb blocks but Tonga still managed 6 havoc plays, including 4 tackles for loss. Senior Bracken El-Bakri and sophomore Atunaisa Mahe were second and third in tackles from the line and return in 2020 as well so the line should be in good hands.
Linebacker - Kavika Fonua - Senior
BYU played an 8-man rotation for their 4 linebacker spots and return all 8, lead by Fonua. They combined for 50 havoc plays and well over 70% of the entire team’s tackles. They will once again be the strength of the Cougar defense but the outside backers need to be a lot better at rushing the passer: of the team’s 16 sacks 3.5 came from the linebacking crew...and 2 came from a cornerback. Certainly an area that needs to improve if they want to hit elite territory.
Defensive Back - D’Angelo Mandell - Junior
The Cougars lose a starting corner and a starting safety and the remaining members of the starting secondary are three juniors, two of which barely saw the field in 2019. As I’ve cited multiple times in these previews, a strong secondary is the best way to have an elite defense and experience has the closest correlation to secondary success. The Cougars will damn near be starting over and will probably be the focus of opposing offenses.
So what does it mean?
Missouri’s 2020 schedule isn’t very forgiving. If they simply win the games that they are projected to win, the Tigers will have six wins at the end of the season. And of those six wins only Central Arkansas, Vanderbilt and Eastern Michigan are projected to be “sure” wins, something that Missouri can never truly bank on. That means that either Missouri wins all their toss up games or they need to steal a game against a tougher opponent.
BYU is one of those close games and it comes at an absolutely inopportune time. The Tigers will have just gone on the road to Tennessee and will be hosting Georgia right after their trip to Provo. That’s a tough ask for any team, let alone a super young team with a ton of new pieces and a new staff.
The Cougars have a tough schedule as well. They were a perfectly average team last year and should be the same this year, but play a whopping 6 teams projected within 15 spots of their ranking. Missouri is one of those teams.
Both Missouri and BYU need to win this game, but BYU has the advantage of hosting the Tigers in the middle of a three-game homestand, sandwiching the Tigers between in-state rival Utah State and Dana Holgorsen’s Houston. BYU has more returning experience, a cohesive staff, a returning quarterback, and will be at home in the mountains of Provo.
This is a huge test for Drinkwtiz and his staff. Pull this win off and we should have proof of concept and good feelings, regardless of how the rest of the year plays out. But lose this one and you can just about write off any thoughts of the baby Tigers getting to a bowl game.