SALT LAKE CITY — Unfair as it might seem, reputations that often take years to build and maintain can collapse in a short period of time.
This could be the case for BYU football, for decades a nationally respected program that suddenly has fallen on hard times. One disastrous season, which unquestionably happened in 2017, followed up by another potentially might lead to long-term trouble for the Cougars.
“Last year was obviously quite a hit,” said Chris Vannini, who covers college football for The Athletic website. “This year now, I think, will be the determent of where things kind of go for the future.”
For three decades under legendary coach LaVell Edwards, BYU football was known as the authors of a pass-happy offense that piled up countless points and conference championships. After a three-year run of losing seasons under Gary Crowton, new coach Bronco Mendenhall quickly re-established BYU’s reputation, making a bowl game in each of his 11 seasons before hitting the financial jackpot at Virginia.
In his first year as a head coach, Kalani Sitake represented well enough in leading BYU to a 9-4 record and a bowl win over Wyoming. But any goodwill came crashing down with the team’s pitiful performance last season.
Normally, one bad year would not sully a long tenure of quality football, but two in a row could lead to a greater fallout, especially if the offense repeats its historically low production levels. Ranked 124th in scoring last season, the BYU offense also finished 106th in yards per play, 118th in passer rating and 127th in turnovers.
BYU, last year, we hardly knew you.
“Before last year it was one of the more solid and consistent teams in the country,” Vannini said in an interview with 97.5-FM and 1280-AM The Zone. “Coming off 11 straight bowl games, you always knew what you were going to get with Bronco Mendenhall teams. They were always solid. It was going to be a tough, physical game. Last year kind of changes that.”
Suffice it to say, Sitake understands the gravity of the situation. For as much as BYU is a different breed in college football, the difficult nature of recruiting to a school with a stringent Honor Code won’t factor into job security.
Reality might be win or lose.
“We’re coming off a year we’re not proud of, and there is a lot of urgency to get better,” Sitake told The Athletic.
Mendenhall worked wonders in rebuilding a BYU program that suffered through a combined 14-21 record from 2002-04. After going 6-6 in Mendenhall’s first season, the Cougars were 43-9 over the next four years with two Mountain West championships and three wins in the Las Vegas Bowl.
But Mendenhall coached on a more level playing field that Sitake does not enjoy. BYU now has to recruit as an independent and usually play a more difficult schedule, often without the benefit of easing into the heart of the season. And don’t forget, bitter rival Utah now plays in the Pac-12.
Not that it is a hopeless situation. With better coaching, led by new offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes and passing coordinator Aaron Roderick, combined with improved health and experience, BYU reasonably is in play for at least a .500 record and an accompanying bowl berth.
As often is the case, it starts with the quarterback. To erase the awful memories of last season and ease the pressure on the coaches, one of the several candidates has to emerge as the starting quarterback.
“You used to think of BYU as an explosive offensive team,” Vannini said. “Now I think it’s kind of shifted toward it’s a better defensive team and they have to figure out a quarterback.”