A few high-profile programs have failed to meet lofty preseason expectations. Florida State was ranked third in the preseason polls, and now it’s struggling with Wake Forest and Duke. LSU and Stanford had rough starts, while Louisville’s 4-3 with two road games up next.
But the most disappointing team, in terms of the biggest gap between expectations and performance? It may very well be BYU.
Nobody was expecting the Cougars to make a run at a Playoff bid, but they were supposed to be pretty good. They picked up a handful of votes in the preseason polls, were ranked in the preseason top 50 in S&P+, and at least one Vegas book set their over/under for wins at 10. Facing another daunting independent schedule, BYU was considered a bowl team — maybe one that could steal a victory over a P5 squad or two.
Basically, that’s what the Cougars have been over the last 12 years. They’ve been one of the most consistently good teams in the country, never finishing below 55th in S&P+, a mark that not even programs like Oregon, Alabama, or Georgia could claim.
But BYU is not pretty good this year. BYU is one of the worst teams in the entire country.
The Cougars are lagging in just about every metric. They’re a lowly 1-6 on the season, with their lone victory over FCS Portland State in a game that was in doubt in the fourth quarter. Most of their losses haven’t been especially close, including their most recent, a 35-10 loss at Mississippi State, a game in which they only tallied 176 total yards as a team.
BYU’s S&P+ ranking is 116, worse than teams like Coastal Carolina (which JUST joined FBS this season), UMass (which is winless) and Rutgers (which is Rutgers). BYU’s offensive S&P+ ranking is 128th out of 130 teams. Its defense is actually OK (it’s ranked 58th) but thanks to an offense that can’t pass, run, or block effectively, it’s barely had a chance.
S&P+ numbers don’t go this far back, but according to the Simple Rating System used on Sports-Reference.com, this is the worst BYU team since 1968, well before the program-defining LaVell Edwards was hired as head coach. That team finished 2-8. The last BYU team to finish with one win was in 1955.
Now, BYU could still rally and make a bowl. It needs to scare up five more wins, and its remaining schedule features games with equally bad teams, like East Carolina, San Jose State, and UMass. But that doesn’t really change the fact that the present is horrible.
How did BYU, with a program history of prolific offenses, get so bad so quickly?
BYU has faced a tough early schedule, with games against LSU, Utah, Wisconsin, Boise State, and Mississippi State, a difficult ask for a program whose recruiting rankings have typically been in the 50s and 60s.
Injuries and depth have also played a role. BYU’s star QB, Tanner Mangum, has battled injuries for several weeks, forcing BYU to give meaningful snaps to preferred walk-on QBs. One of BYU’s best defensive players was suspended for the year before the season started. Injuries to other offensive targets piled up. That happens to every team, but for a team like BYU, the backups or backup-backups might be walk-ons or fringe FBS players.
BYU had to replace its best running QB since Steve Young (Taysom Hill) and perhaps its best running back ever (Jamaal Williams) and didn’t have any reliable skill position targets with meaningful experience, although there were players with upside.
All of that might explain why the offense has regressed, but not to “maybe the worst offense in the country” kind of regression.
Some of that blame also would belong to an inexperienced coaching staff. BYU offensive coordinator Ty Detmer was a legendary college QB (he did win the dang Heisman at BYU, after all), but this is only his second year as a college coach. (He coached high school before joining BYU’s staff.) BYU head coach Kalani Sitake was a first-time head coach when he was hired last season, and he comes from a defensive background.
Can BYU turn it around quickly? That’s not clear.
The good news for BYU is that many of the important players from this year’s team will return next year. Tanner Mangum, a former four-star recruit who shared Elite 11 MVP honors with Jameis Winston once upon a time, should return, along with nearly every skill position player, although the Cougars will need to replace some offensive line starters and playmakers on defense, like Fred Warner. Elite offensive line recruit Tristen Hoge, a transfer from Notre Dame, will also be eligible.
But returning a bunch isn’t a blessing if those players don’t improve. And BYU’s future schedules are just as ambitious. Next season, BYU will have to play at Arizona, at Wisconsin, at Washington, at Boise State, and at Utah, while hosting an improved Cal squad and NIU. BYU’s 2019 schedule includes games against Tennessee, USC, Washington, and Utah.
And the program’s facing some recruiting headwinds. Three recruits just flipped to archrival Utah, and the program has only one blue-chip recruit in the current class. BYU will probably always have inferior talent and depth to many of the P5 programs it faces, but it’ll need to keep that gap as small as possible.
It’s never good to stink, but now is an especially tricky time for BYU football to crater.
BYU’s contract with ESPN expires after the 2019 season. It’s not like BYU’s value as a brand is going to evaporate, but in what figures to be a trickier marketplace than it was a few years ago, going into those discussions as a bowl team feels better than as a four-win team.
Plus, with even more demanding games scheduled for 2019 and beyond, a lengthy, multiyear rebuild would get even harder.
Under Bronco Mendenhall, BYU was most dependably among the good teams in the country. Mendenhall is now helping turn Virginia around. Can BYU get back to that level?