SALT LAKE CITY — For all the detractors still doubting BYU's most recent success in football, the NFL draft provided evidence that goes against their collective disbelief.
Yes, the Cougars were an impressive 11-1, but skeptics always attribute the glossy record to a lightweight schedule that did not include one Power Five opponent and was pieced together when COVID-19 ravaged the original schedule. Last week's draft probably won't change any minds, but NFL executives did think the team had some decent talent.
Led by quarterback Zach Wilson, whom the New York Jets took with the second pick, NFL teams drafted five players off of last season's team. After the draft concluded, another seven were quickly signed to free agent contracts spread across the league.
The number of players selected were the most for BYU since the 2002 draft, which came four months after the Cougars finished 12-2. That team, which was Gary Crowton's first season as the coach, featured future five-year NFL veteran Reno Mahe at receiver and San Francisco 49ers draft pick Brandon Doman at quarterback along with Luke Staley, who won the Doak Walker award as the nation's best running back. The defense included several future NFL players.
Until Staley missed the last two games of the season with an injury, BYU won its first 12 games and was ranked in the top 10. In a stark difference, the 2001 Cougars were not disparaged in the same manner as last year's team.
Crowton's team did play three teams — Cal, Mississippi State and Louisville — from the now-recognized P5, winning the first two before losing to the Cardinals in the Liberty Bowl. The most notable wins last season were over American Athletic Conference members Navy and Central Florida and the Mountain West's Boise State.
Even if the NFL verified the quality of BYU's team last season, most associated with the program have grown weary of trying to justify it. The accomplishments speak for themselves, they would argue.
"I'm just over trying to validate," said offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick, likely speaking for the entire coaching staff. "It's hard to go 11-1. I don't care who you play."
A wide receiver for BYU in the 1990s, Roderick maintains last season's schedule was not drastically different from the slate of games the program played during his time and before. He compared it favorably to typical Mountain West and WAC schedules that BYU played for many years before going independent in 2011.
"How many teams were 11-1?" Roderick asked during an interview on The Zone Sports Network two days after this season's draft concluded.
Point well taken.
In those two conferences BYU rarely escaped a 12-game schedule with only one loss. From 1979 to 1984, the immediate period after Arizona State and Arizona left the WAC for the Pac-10, four BYU teams completed seasons with one loss, culminating in the 1984 team that was 13-0 and won the national championship.
The Cougars were 14-1 in 1996, losing only to the Pac-10's Washington. Every BYU team in the Mountain West had at least two losses.
No Utah team in the WAC ever finished with only one blemish. But the Utes did have two undefeated teams — 2004 and 2008 — in the Mountain West.
Defending last year's BYU team does not matter anymore, anyway. Another effective way to silence the critics is to follow up success with more success.
Until last year, the program had been stagnant the last few years. Consecutive strong seasons would prove coach Kalani Sitake has developed a solid program.
Roderick's message to the team, particularly to the players on offense is: "Are we going to show up and play or are we going to go back to being 7-6 again? That's why you play; that's the competitive nature of this. I like the raw material that we have to work with."