The Daily Herald’s BYU sports experts Jared Lloyd and Darnell Dickson weigh in on five of the biggest questions facing the Cougars this week:
1. Do you think BYU football’s offense or defense will show more improvement after the bye week?
DICKSON: It has the be the defense. Offensively, I can’t imagine the Cougars will be able to show a ton of improvement with the loss of Zach Wilson against USF’s Top 50 defense. I think the offense will move the ball and make some plays but getting more than 24 points would be asking a lot. So the defense is going to have to figure out a way to stop the run and get off the field a few times. The coaching staff should have spent a ton of time in the bye week shoring up the run defense, because the Bulls are looking to run.
LLOYD: While I agree that the BYU defense should be able to be significantly better by scheming to stop the run more effectively, I actually think it will be the Cougar offense that will make the biggest jump. That’s because I see it as being a unit that simply hasn’t reached its potential yet in all areas of the game. I don’t think there will be as big of a dropoff from Zach Wilson to Jaren Hall as some assume there will be because Hall got a lot of reps while Wilson was recovering during the offseason. Instincts make a difference and I like what I’ve seen from Hall in the last six months. If BYU can convert a better percentage on third down and end another drive or two in the end zone, it will have a pretty big impact on the team overall.
2. What would you say is the most underrated thing the Cougar football team must do to get its season back on track?
LLOYD: This squad absolutely has to believe in itself at a higher level. That may sound odd, since college football players have natural swagger that sometimes borders on being cocky, but to me that collective confidence isn’t where it needs to be at yet for BYU. Not everything is going to go your way in a game. So what? The best teams don’t let the bad things get to them because they know they can overcome them. There is no reason to make stupid penalties because the players have strong trust in each other and the coaches. I don’t think BYU is a bad team but I think it is still more fragile than I thought it would be. Mistakes snowball into more mistakes instead of being dismissed as insignificant and surmountable. Even though the youth on the team is getting on-field experience, I think the team psyche still needs to mature.
DICKSON: I hear it from the players all the time: Do your 1/11th. It simply means do your job and focus on taking care of your assignment, nothing else. Players get in trouble when they try to make a play or step outside of their assignment because they feel the pressure of the game. Every play will break down if one person doesn’t do their job, so the focus this week should be taking care of their assignment play after play.
3. After two straight gridiron losses, some BYU fans have started clamoring for a coaching change. How do you think those types of decisions should be handled?
DICKSON: It’s hard to get a read on BYU Athletics Director Tom Holmoe because he speaks so infrequently to the media and in public. I can’t think of any AD at any school in the country that is so silent. Knowing that, you have to believe that any good AD has a list of guys that could someday fill the head coaching role. I think the general feeling is that Kalani Sitake has all the right tools to be the head coach at BYU. But if the players don’t respond to coaching and get better every week, you’ve got a problem. The win totals are just not there, especially at home. I don’t think we’ll hear anything from Holmoe until after the season.
LLOYD: I don’t think coaching decisions should ever be made until after a season is completed. I’ve never liked midseason changes and “interim” situations. I think fans often overlook some realities that athletic directors and administrators have to take into account when switching coaches, things like budget impact and that a program has to virtually start over. That’s particularly the case at BYU, where missions for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints skew the normal timetable. Yes, at some point a program has to choose to go in a different direction. Is BYU at that point? I think this is the wrong time to be asking that question. Let the current Cougar staff see what it can accomplish in the next couple of months and then reevaluate that question.
4. Should the success of the other Cougar fall sports — many of which are ranked in the Top 10 — offset the disappointment of the up-and-down football season?
LLOYD: For a BYU sports fan that loves the institution as a whole, I think the answer has to be yes. If you bleed blue, you have to love seeing women’s soccer and volleyball win those big games. Having men’s and women’s cross country be the second-best teams in the nation is something to be tremendously proud of. But there is no denying that there is a huge contingent of Cougars supporters who are mostly football and/or men’s basketball fans. Those are the banner sports, the ones that get the most attention. If those are the sports that matter to you, than the accolades of other programs are nice — but unsatisfying. You ache for gridiron glory or hardwood heroism and nothing else can satisfy that craving.
DICKSON: It never will for some fans. They see football and men’s basketball as the only sports that matter because it gives them bravado to talk to their buddies about how good BYU is playing when things are going well. Can you imagine a BYU fan engaging in smack talk about the volleyball or soccer programs? I can’t. But maybe they should. The BYU volleyball, soccer, women’s basketball, gymnastics, golf, softball, cross country and track programs are elite with some of the best coaches in the country. They should be celebrated for competing at a high level while still recruiting under the same guidelines as football and men’s basketball. I know it’s not a fair comparison, but like LaVell Edwards did so many years ago with missions, they have taken a perceived weakness (the honor code) and made it a strength in recruiting. Facts are facts.
5. BYU men’s basketball discussed what it thinks is possible in 2019-20 at Media Day on Wednesday. What are your expectations for the Cougars this upcoming season?
DICKSON: Man, that’s a tough one. Without the injuries, I saw the Cougars going 5-4 or 6-3 in the nine games Yoeli Childs is missing due to the NCAA suspension, then taking off and challenging for the top of the WCC. Now I see a team that’s really going to be one dimensional, surviving on their 3-point shooting until Childs returns and even then he’s going to really be the only reliable inside presence. I know that Mark Pope has spent a lot of time with this group in electronically tracking 3-point shooting. BYU’s consistency beyond the arc will ultimately determine how well this team performs this season.
LLOYD: I actually only had one expectation for the Cougars prior to Media Day — and now I have doubled that to two expectations. This is the first season for BYU under the direction of Mark Pope, which means there will be a learning curve. But Pope is a high-intensity guy, so I expected from when he was hired that the Cougars would have that translate into high-intensity on the court. So I always expected BYU to play hard, but now I also expect them to play smart. That’s the standard Pope set at Media Day and now I’m going to be looking for that on the court. I won’t gauge the success of that aspiration by statistics and wins as much as by seeing if the Cougars are in the right places defensively, if they are making the right passes and taking the right shots. If so, that will be an excellent foundation for the future.