Whether BYU can turn this season around is almost an academic question. Efficiency data currently projects them as one of the worst teams in the country, and if they manage to back themselves into a lower-level bowl game by beating a slew of teams ranked even worse, it probably wouldn’t change anything particularly substantial, other than giving them extra bowl practices.
For me personally, the more interesting questions are “why are they so bad right now” and “can they get better?”
I think the answers to those questions are related. They come down to recruiting
Recruiting isn’t the only reason why BYU is bad this year. Talent acquisition may be the most important factor in how good a team is, but it isn’t the only one, and you could probably make a convincing argument that injury luck, scheme, and coaching have not done this team any favors.
But three of BYU’s losses have come against programs with significantly more talent (LSU, Wisconsin and Utah), while a fourth, Boise State, is roughly equal, at least in terms of recruiting pedigree. The fifth loss, to Utah State, came with BYU had to give significant QB snaps to a preferred walk-on.
This is not a new problem. As an independent, BYU is going to play probably half of their games each season against teams with superior recruits (seven of BYU’s opponents last season recruited at a higher clip than BYU). Over the course of the season, depending on how injuries or suspensions shake out, BYU could even be at a talent disadvantage against some G5 programs they play later in the year.
Many fans were frustrated with what they sensed was a program ceiling under Bronco Mendenhall. BYU was regularly a good team, one that might occasionally upset a big name program (like, say, Texas), but not one capable of beating enough good teams to crack the Top 25 or take the proverbial next step. BYU’s ability to take that step will depend on, more than any other single variable, their ability to upgrade their overall talent level.
Are they doing that now? Let’s take a look at the data
Right now, according to the 247 Sports Composite rankings (which includes data from all four major recruiting services), BYU’s 2018 class is ranked 57th in the country, with 16 commitments (two players flipped to Utah this weekend, dropping that ranking down significantly). If that ranking holds, it would be slightly better than BYU recruiting classes in recent memory.
But it almost certainly won’t hold, since BYU’s ranking is higher, in part, because of their larger class size. There are larger P5 programs that have classes ranked much lower than BYU’s, like Arizona State (59th, with 13 commits) or Stanford (83rd, with 7). Once the season ends, and schools look to fill out their full classes, mostly with at least 21 commitments, BYU could drop somewhere into the 60s, especially since BYU is unlikely to sign more than one additional blue-chip recruit, if that.
There’s also rumors that other current BYU commits could decide to pick other schools before National Signing Day. Certainly other major programs will continue to try and flip BYU’s star commitment, four-star linebacker Brandon Kaho. Other programs, including Utah, may try to flip other players.
Right now, BYU’s average recruit rating is 83.00, which roughly means that the average BYU recruit in 2018 would translate to a lower rated 3-star type recruit.
How much of an improvement is that? Let’s take a look at the data.
Here’s BYU’s average recruit rating, again, using the 247 Sports Composite, over the last six years. I’ve also included the BYU class ranking:
2017: 81.92, 66nd
2016: 83.07, 49th
2015: 82.11, 65th
2014: 82.00, 64th
2013: 79.72, 66th
2012: 82.07, 71st
So on one hand, it’s true, we can say that BYU’s recruiting under Sitake has improved. BYU has at least a shot at their best class ranking since 2010, and if they don’t lose anybody and finish strongly, they could finish with their best per player rating in years.
But it’s awfully hard to sell this as a transformational change, since the improvement is relatively small. The caliber of recruit that BYU has brought in hasn’t changed that much since 2012, and the class rank fluctuation may be more to do with the size of recruiting classes other schools are bringing in, rather than just BYU’s recruit quality.
Under Mendenhall, BYU might sign one blue-chip kid a year, a handful of kids with other P5 interest, and then a lot of developmental type players with MWC interest, or none at all. Under Sitake, that’s still mostly the profile of a BYU recruiting class.
How should we evaluate this data? What does this actually mean?
Recruiting rankings, although they absolutely have predictive value, are not perfect. BYU fans, I think, are especially wary about this because of a few well-documented big name recruits that didn’t work out...but you do not win on an elite level (like, compete for a college football playoff spot) without recruiting a lot of blue-chip kids. And generally, if you have to play against teams that do recruit those kids, you won’t win very often.
I think the best way to look at recruiting star data is to think of them like raffle tickets. Every year, lots of two-star recruits add 40 pounds, grow an inch, learn a new position, or make some other change to become successful, high-level college football players. But even more end up just being depth guys, FCS caliber players, etc. The higher the star rating, the better the chance that recruit becomes an impact, high-level player.
We’d probably all agree that it would be unrealistic to expect BYU to recruit enough elite players to compete for national titles, or to land in the top 20 in national recruiting rankings. As a state, Utah only produces a tiny handful of elite recruits, and between two and three dozen FBS caliber kids a cycle. BYU requiring academic performance above the NCAA minimums, the Honor Code, BYU’s lack of conference affiliation, the demographics of BYU’s campus and the state of Utah, the size of BYU’s athletic budget, and a geographic location that makes regular unofficial visits difficult for many prospects all contribute to limit just how well BYU could be expected to recruit. This is not breaking news.
The question is how high the possible ceiling is
There are, after all, elite LDS recruits outside of the state of Utah, including several who serve missions, who go on to attend other schools, like Stanford. BYU is heavily pursuing one right now, in elite QB Tanner McKee, although he is currently heavily favored to pick Stanford. If BYU picked up a few of those kids every cycle, which they could theoretically do, all of their recruiting numbers would jump.
BYU could also, theoretically, do better with the great recruits in their own backyard. The state of Utah has six four-star recruits this year, and BYU is not favored to pick up any of them. Their highest ranked Utah recruit is Connor Pay, the 13th ranked player in the state, a mid-three-star kid. BYU did pick up three of the top ten recruits in the state last cycle, and holds the commitment from the currently top ranked 2019 prospect in the state. But there is certainly more room for growth here.
As somebody who has to follow national recruiting for my job, I can also tell you that while recruiting for a school with a very strict Honor Code certainly makes things difficult, there really are more non-LDS kids who’d be willing to live that lifestyle than you’d think. Most college locker rooms have plenty of FCA kids who aren’t hard partiers, and tons of athletes played high school football in strict, socially conservative parochial school environments. Kids move to unfamiliar environments that require sacrifices all the time, if they can be convinced it’s the best academic and athletic fit for them.
Is the news all doom and gloom? No, I don’t think so
It’s worth noting that recruiting prep athletes isn’t the only way for BYU to acquire talent. The Cougars have been active in the transfer market for several seasons, and that can be one way to pick up elite talent. The player with the best recruiting pedigree on BYU’s roster right now, after all, is a transfer from Notre Dame, Tristen Hoge, somebody who should really help BYU’s offensive line next season. Thanks to transfers, BYU’s Team Talent Composite ranking (which looks at the recruiting rankings of every player on the roster, not just those who signed with that school on NSD), is 52nd, which is slightly better than recent recruiting would indicate. That’s thanks to transfers.
There is risk in this approach (after all, players transfer for a reason), but there’s risk in everything.
It’s also fair to say that BYU has been significantly more aggressive in recruiting than in previous years, being less stingy with offers, and willing to go to different parts of the country. It would be hard to argue that where they are now is due to lack of effort, in my opinion.
Excellent coaching, development, and schemes that are built for teams with inferior raw talent can help overcome recruiting disadvantages. But the last several years of college football show that if you want to schedule aggressively, you need to have the horses to compete. And BYU’s future schedules in 2018, 2019 and 2020 are absolutely aggressive.
We’re a ways from National Signing Day, so plenty can change, but we’re not THAT far away. And fans are hoping for significant reinforcements to change the direction of the program. The data, right now, doesn’t show they’re on the way.