SALT LAKE CITY — With five Pac-12 teams on the schedule during the upcoming football season, BYU will get a strong gauge to determine if the program can compete in the Power Five conference.
The slate offers the Cougars a great test with a mix of teams expected to range from the top to the bottom of the conference. Three teams — Utah, Arizona State and Southern California — will be picked to contend for first place in the South Division, while preseason polls will rank Washington State and Arizona closer to the bottom.
Where would BYU fit in? More than likely, if recent history is an indication, the Cougars belong somewhere in the middle.
Since becoming an independent in 2011, the same season Utah moved up to the P5, BYU has gone 6-15 against the Pac-12. As fans of both programs are well aware, eight of those losses have come against arch rival Utah while in its new conference.
Only once in the last 10 years, when they beat Cal to close the regular season in 2014, have the Cougars finished with a winning record against the Pac-12. Their worst record was 1-3 in 2018.
But the program is in a much better spot since it left the Mountain West, especially now that Kalani Sitake is entering his sixth season as the head coach. At this point, the roster is his recruits and the entire staff are his hires, unlike when he succeeded Bronco Mendenhall.
The upgrade showed last season, when BYU demolished several opponents on the way to finishing 11-1. And, yes, the coronavirus pandemic-related softer schedule the Cougars were forced to play contributed to the glossy record. But only a fool would argue Sitake didn't have his best team to date last season, even if it didn't get to play the original schedule that included six games against P5 teams. In addition to quarterback Zach Wilson, who is expected to go second in next week's NFL draft, the Pro Football Focus website ranks seven other BYU players among its top 300 prospects.
The total of eight Cougars in the top 300 ranks higher than any Pac-12 team. USC leads the conference with seven of the top 300, while three teams — Utah, Washington State and Arizona — don't have any.
Without a doubt, Sitake's program is in its best shape since Mendenhall transformed a national embarrassment into an annual Mountain West contender virtually overnight. Following three consecutive losing seasons, BYU went 6-6 in 2004 and then won two conference championships and 43 games over the next four seasons.
Mendenhall's best team came in 2006, during which BYU started 1-2 and then didn't lose again. The Cougars blasted Oregon 38-8 in the Las Vegas Bowl, an accomplishment that didn't sway Mike Bellotti's opinion that they couldn't compete with the best of the Pac-12.
Before the game, the then-Oregon coach said of BYU: "They have some fine players who could play anywhere in the Pac-10. But collectively, no, they couldn't compete at the highest level in the Pac-10."
Give him credit for refusing to give BYU much respect after the beat down. His postgame comments included: "We didn't play like a mid-level Pac-10 team, either, but, no, my opinion hasn't changed."
In a recent podcast posted on SI.com, former UCLA coach Jim Mora noted many of his coaching colleagues have great respect for BYU, but the program still has to prove it can consistently beat the better teams. The Pac-12 decision to bail on nonconference games, except for a hastily scheduled game between Colorado and San Diego State, ruined BYU's chances of gaining more national traction last season.
The good news is the Cougars get another chance this season. Even with a new team, the time is here to prove where BYU belongs in the Pac-12.