The Daily Herald’s BYU football experts Jared Lloyd and Darnell Dickson weigh in on five of the biggest questions facing the Cougars this week:
1. BYU's new offensive coordinator
1. Did BYU football make the right move by promoting Aaron Roderick to offensive coordinator just hours after Jeff Grimes returned to Texas to coach at Baylor?
DICKSON: It makes sense, but I’m not sure why Roderick would want the job. Grimes followed Ty Detmer’s 2016 and 2017 underwhelming and underachieving offenses. There was nowhere to go but up for Grimes and the offense. I think BYU fans, and Kalani Sitake, showed some patience and it paid off. Roderick will take over an offense that is missing a ton of pieces from the 2020 season that was so successful. He’d better hope he’s afforded the same patience. It is a plus that Roderick already knows the personnel and I was impressed with his play calling in the bowl game. Plus, he has experience as an offensive coordinator at Utah. He talked about improving as a coach every year and I think he’s ready.
LLOYD: Since the Cougars had a really good season in 2020, I think the only logical decision BYU head coach Kalani Sitake had was to continue going in the same direction. I do think there is something that has been somewhat overlooked with the speed of the process and the fact that the staff doesn’t initially appear like it is going to change very much. That is that the pressure to succeed is going to start at a lot higher level for Roderick than it did for Grimes when he arrived. If the Cougars continue to thrive against more normal competition, then Roderick is quickly going to become a hot coaching candidate. If, however, BYU regresses without Zach Wilson, Dax Milne and the other Cougar offensive players who have departed, then Roderick might not get more than a couple of seasons to get BYU back to playing at an elite level. Success is always the goal and brings big rewards — but there are big risks as well.
2. Hoops schedule change
2. Did BYU men’s basketball do the right thing by moving up the game against Gonzaga and kicking off league play on Thursday?
LLOYD: The theme for Cougar sports in 2020-21 has been to play as much as possible. I can only imagine how frustrated Mark Pope was getting as BYU men’s basketball had three straight games postponed/canceled because of COVID-19 issues. He wants his guys on the floor and I think he — just like Kalani Sitake and the Cougar football team — was willing to take on any challengers. I think BYU can go into this game without any pressure because everyone knows the Cougars are a long shot. Why not get in an early test and see how well your guys can do against the best team in the country?
DICKSON: I think it’s important for BYU to play games whenever possible, considering the circumstances of COVID-19. The California schools are a mess and who knows how many WCC games will be played? It’s obviously a very difficult test for the Cougars. The schedule of the next three games, all on the road, are against the top three teams in the conference besides BYU (Gonzaga, Saint Mary’s and San Francisco). If that had been the original schedule, I would have thought the WCC had it out for the Cougars. Now it’s just the way the game has to be played.
3. Ranking Gonzaga upsets
3. If the Cougar hoops team somehow manages to get the upset over the top-ranked Bulldogs, would it be the biggest upset for BYU in the series?
DICKSON: I was at all three upsets in Spokane (2015, 2016 and 2017) and each one was bigger than the next. I’ll never forget seeing the “30-0” headline leaked early by the Spokane paper before the Cougars upset the No. 1-ranked Bulldogs in 2017. I think that will always be the biggest upset in the series. Still, this is probably Gonzaga’s best team ever. An upset would go a long way in establishing BYU’s résumé. What I’d really like to see, however, is a Cougar win in the WCC Tournament. For some reason (Mark Few, probably) the Bulldogs always turn it on the tournament against BYU. If the Cougars could flip that script, it would be an even bigger upset.
LLOYD: That’s a tough call because the Cougars have gotten some big wins over the Zags when Gonzaga was highly ranked. I’m still going to say this would be the biggest but I’m going to add the caveat that it depends on whether Bulldog star guard Jalen Suggs plays. If he plays and BYU still wins, this would be the biggest upset because of what Gonzaga has done in 2020-21 already. The Bulldogs have beaten four ranked opponents, three of them by double digits. The only close game in their 10-0 start was an 87-82 win over West Virginia (one where Suggs was limited by an ankle injury). Gonzaga got all but four of the first place votes in the two major college basketball polls, which shows how much respect the country has for the Bulldogs. A BYU win would be monumental.
4. Cougar men's and women's volleyball
4. Are you more excited to see the No. 1-ranked BYU men’s volleyball team or the No. 16-ranked women’s volleyball team in action this winter?
LLOYD: I know the BYU men are fantastic but the reality is that the competition in the women’s game is much deeper (330 schools have Division I women’s volleyball programs, only 43 have Division 1 men’s programs). The Cougars have had tremendous success recently in women’s volleyball, although 2019 was a slight dip in the standard BYU has set for itself. This team has some questions to answer, but I expect big things from sophomore setter Whitney Bower and senior middle blocker Kennedy Eschenberg. I’m intrigued to see how head coach Heather Olmstead will reload and what the Cougars did to prepare during the incredibly long, pandemic-impacted offseason.
DICKSON: The men’s team was on such a great streak last year. Splitting at Hawaii moved them into the favorite role for the NCAA title before COVID-19 ended the season. While Jared is right in pointing out there are more Division I women’s teams, I would ask you to consider this: If there are fewer teams in men’s college volleyball, doesn’t that mean the talent is more condensed? Each team is loaded with the best volleyball players in the country. Look, I love watching women’s college volleyball, but the men’s game is just something different. I get to watch it at floor level and the athleticism and grace of these guys is simply off the charts. Everyone came back and I think the Cougar men could win the NCAA title. That makes it hard not to get excited about the potential of the season.
5. Gymnastics expectations
5. BYU women’s gymnastics is ranked No. 17 heading into the season. What do you think are realistic expectations for the Cougar gymnasts?
DICKSON: I have to admit, I know very little about gymnastics (no comments about not knowing much about anything else, please). I do know that it’s a very difficult sport to master and the biased judging system makes it almost impossible to upset the top teams. You see it every four years in the Olympics: The world championship athletes and teams are judged differently than an up-and-coming athlete or team. So what I’m saying is that it’s very difficult for BYU to exceed what they’ve accomplished in the past. They are generally a Top 15 or Top 20 team and that’s likely where they will end up.
LLOYD: It’s unfortunate that we never got to see what the 2020 team could do in the postseason because of the COVID-19 pandemic shutdowns, but that’s in the past now and it is all about the future. The Cougars returned the majority of their talent, so on paper they look to have a strong group. The biggest unknown is how the pandemic impacted the team, since there were a lot of times when it was hard to train. Gymnasts rely heavily on constant preparation and Guard Young and his staff have had time to rebound from the lost time, but it still won’t be easy. I think that defeating Utah or challenging for a Top 5 finish is probably still out of reach for BYU but I think the Cougars should be shooting to be one of the Top 15 teams in the country. A Top 10 finish would be phenomenal.
Darnell Dickson, who has been covering sports in Utah since 1989 (with a detour to Nebraska for three years somewhere in there), is currently the BYU football columnist and BYU men’s basketball beat writer.