SALT LAKE CITY — Fair or not, the BYU football program begins practice this week with the extra burden of providing an encore to last year's phenomenal success.
Not that they necessarily need to do it, but the Cougars can further validate all the 2020 accomplishments with a strong follow-up this season against a much tougher schedule. Another great season would silence any critic on multiple fronts.
But there is a bigger issue at stake than ranking a single season in a program with a storied history. Any team, with the right amount of experience and good fortune such as health, can string together a series of wins over one season.
At stake this season is the coaching staff's ability to build a program capable of sustaining success over a period of years. The truth is, head coach Kalani Sitake has yet to show the program has arrived under his tutelage.
Entering his sixth season, Sitake has posted a 38-26 record. Excluding a 9-4 record his first season, which was built primarily on coach Bronco Mendenhall's players, Sitake endured one awful season (4-9) and two mediocre 7-6 campaigns before breaking through last year.
Along the way, Sitake has garnered plenty of criticism and support. Another consecutive solid season would show his program is headed in the right direction.
Within the program, which includes players dating back to the LaVell Edwards era, the former BYU running back has a strong backing. Former players and coaches go so far as to demand the university administration better support Sitake in terms of an increased financial commitment individually and collectively throughout the program.
They insist BYU wants Sitake to develop and sustain a program without the resources afforded virtually to all of the opponents on the schedule. Few can argue BYU competes financially with the likes of the five Pac-12 teams on this year's slate.
His supporters also point to the administration's apparent love affair with basketball coach Mark Pope. Barely into Pope's second season last November, BYU announced an extension of his contract through the 2026-27 season.
Sitake's extension came midway through November of his fourth season, or one year until the original deal expired. The new deal runs through the 2023 season.
Last season, during which the Cougars finished 11-1 and recorded the fewest losses since the 1996 team went 14-1, was a major step in building a program BYU desires. But for some it was a mirage, built on the strength of a cupcake schedule that did not include any teams from the Power Five conferences.
No matter that the NFL believed in the team's talent, selecting five Cougars in last spring's draft led by quarterback Zach Wilson going second to the New York Jets. Another seven players signed free agent contracts shortly after the seven-round draft concluded.
All the detractors are quick to point out a program that was a combined 18-21 the three previous seasons was not good enough to lose only one game against a more traditional BYU schedule. Athletic Director Tom Holmoe was forced to piecemeal a schedule virtually on the fly after many conferences begged off playing nonconference games for COVID-related reasons.
Fingers crossed, this season's schedule is back to normal. BYU is set to play seven P5 teams, including five from the Pac-12.
No excuses this time around, provided the Cougars live up to the collective talent they believe is on the team. A nine-win season would prove last season was no fluke.
Of course, most college football teams go through significant turnover from year-to-year, thus making it difficult to expect any carry over. Look no further than at quarterback, where BYU faces a challenge to determine a starter to replace Wilson.
Last season's team is cemented in the BYU history books, forever locked in as one of the program's best. Any debate on either side only makes for interesting discussion.