PROVO, Utah – BYU football goes into a 2021 season looking to continue the momentum they captured with an 11-1 season. It was a breakthrough year for BYU as a program and coach Kalani Sitake. Now, what’s the follow-up act for Sitake’s program?
Sitake enters his sixth season at the helm of BYU, and no one can knock the schedule this time around. BYU will go up against seven Power Five teams, which boast some of the top coaches in college football.
Who are the top head coaches Kalani Sitake and BYU football will face in 2021? Let’s rank it out.
Starting with No. 12 going all the way up to No. 1, the toughest opposing coach BYU will face this fall.
12. Rob Phenicie, Idaho State
BYU vs. Idaho State, November 6
Idaho State is one of the toughest jobs in the Big Sky Conference. Phenicie had a winning record in 2018, but the wins have been hard to come by ever since.
11. Jeff Scott, USF
BYU vs. USF, September 25
After working under Dabo Swinney and his alma mater at Clemson for 12 years, Scott was hired to lead the USF program. He inherited a difficult rebuild job after Charlie Strong in Tampa. The Bulls were 1-8 in Scott’s first season as head coach. Scott’s only win as head coach was against The Citadel from the FCS.
The Bulls gave up 44 points per game in the eight losses.
Things don’t get easier for Scott in year two. USF has a non-conference schedule that features road trips to NC State and BYU and a home date against Florida.
10. Jedd Fisch, Arizona
BYU vs. Arizona, September 4 (Las Vegas)
When Arizona hired New England Patriots QB coach Jedd Fisch, it surprised many. But with a limited budget after firing Kevin Sumlin and Fisch’s background in both the NFL and Pac-12 on the offensive side, the more you look at the hire, it makes sense.
Since his hiring, Fisch has won the P.R. battle with Arizona fans, hiring some prominent Arizona football alums on his staff and making all spring practices open to the public. All of that is fine on the surface, but this is a big rebuild job in the desert. If he can develop a quarterback in year one, that will go a long way towards him exceeding expectations.
The problem for Fisch is that Arizona coaches tend to struggle when their first game is against the BYU football program. Just ask Kevin Sumlin. Fisch will look to rewrite that history in Las Vegas to open the season.
9. Andy Avalos, Boise State
BYU vs. Boise State, October 9
After Bryan Harsin left to take the head coach position at Auburn, Oregon defensive coordinator Andy Avalos, a former Broncos linebacker, seemed like a perfect choice. Boise was in talks with Bronco legend and current Dallas Cowboys offensive coordinator Kellen Moore before turning to Avalos.
The Boise State program since Dirk Koetter has always had high-level results, regardless of the head coach. Can Boise recapture the glory they experienced in the early 2010s with Avalos? That’s likely the hope as he brings a fresh, new upbeat energy to a winning program that has one of the top cultures in the sport.
8. Chad Lunsford, Georgia Southern
BYU at Georgia Southern, November 20
Lunsford took over a Georgia Southern program that experienced an uncharacteristic two-win season in 2017. Since he was named the permanent head coach, he’s led the Eagles to three consecutive bowl games, winning two of them, including a New Orleans Bowl win over LA Tech last season.
Lunsford runs GSU’s signature triple-option attack. He’s worked with Jeff Monken (Army West Point) and Willie Fritz (Tulane) during his coaching tenure.
7. Nick Rolovich, Washington State
BYU at Washington State, October 23
BYU football under Kalani Sitake is well-versed in facing Nick Rolovich’s run and shoot offense. The Cougars took on Rolovich’s Hawaii Rainbow Warriors teams three times from 2017-2019. Going 2-1 in those games. Rolovich enters 2021 basically in year one of his tenure on the Palouse.
He didn’t have a spring practice last year and the Cougs only played four games. One thing is for sure is that Rolovich will get quality play at the quarterback position. Last year, Jayden de Laura showed a ton of promise as a freshman. An offseason arrest for a DUI this past February could halt that promise.
Rolovich brought in Tennessee grad transfer Jarrett Guarantano who faced BYU in 2019, to have another capable quarterback ready if de Laura is not available.
6. Blake Anderson, Utah State
BYU at Utah State, October 1 (Friday)
Anderson had a successful run at Arkansas State, bringing stability to a program that experienced a revolving door at head coach before his hiring. He surprised many in the college football world when he took the Utah State job.
One year prior, he was a finalist for the Missouri job that eventually went to Eli Drinkwitz.
Anderson was looking for a fresh start less than two years after the passing of his wife, Wendy, to breast cancer.
The one knock on Anderson is how he will fit out west? His only experience in the Mountain West Conference was twenty years ago in New Mexico. Anderson produced consistent winners at Arkansas State, even last year the Red Wolves won at Kansas State.
5. Dave Aranda, Baylor
BYU at Baylor, October 16
When BYU football faces Baylor this October in Waco, there will be many connections between the two coaching staffs. Dave Aranda once worked at Utah State and Southern Utah. He comes from the Gary Andersen coaching tree, with which Kalani Sitake and Ilaisa Tuiaki are very familiar. Aranda also brought with him former BYU OC Jeff Grimes, who he worked with at LSU.
Aranda had elite defenses when he was at LSU. BYU witnessed that firsthand when they didn’t cross the 50-yard line in 2017 against the Tigers. After a successful stint at LSU and on the heels of the National Championship, Aranda cashed in with a Big 12 head coach position. The first time he’s ever been a head coach.
After one year, he was 2-7 at Baylor. Inheriting a Bears program that was pretty bare in talent after Matt Rhule left for the Carolina Panthers. Once Aranda finds his stride as a head coach, he has the makings to be one of the rising stars in the sport.
4. Clay Helton, USC
BYU at USC, November 27
USC fans would probably look at this list and think this is too high for Helton. Honestly, it does feel high. Helton is a great man. But this isn’t a ranking on who the best men are. The focus is on the abilities of a head coach. Helton sitting at four on this list comes from the fact that he has the talent to overcome some of his shortcomings as a coach.
Helton had a huge bounceback this past year on the recruiting trail, earning him a little bit of a cooler seat for the Trojan faithful. But it always feels that Helton is one disastrous loss away from that seat being on fire again with the Trojan faithful.
Two years ago, BYU beat USC in Provo with Zach Wilson recovering from a reconstructed shoulder. No one saw Helton lasting after that loss. But he did. Even with a new athletic director being hired.
Last season, USC played in the Pac-12 Championship Game and entered the title matchup with an undefeated 5-0 record. But how impressive was that 5-0 record?
The five wins featured an improbable comeback against Arizona State, where they were down by 13 with 3:35 remaining. A four-point win over winless Arizona. The Trojans won at Utah after the Utes lost starting quarterback Cam Rising on the first possession. There was also another come-from-behind win at rival UCLA that found the Trojans down 28-10.
USC eventually lost to Oregon in the title game, with the Trojans having an outside shot at the Playoff. Raising questions again about Helton.
The Trojans have the easiest schedule they’ve had in years in the revamped Pac-12 Conference. It might conference title or bust for Helton this upcoming fall.
3. Herm Edwards, Arizona State
BYU vs. Arizona State, September 18
Arizona State athletic director Ray Anderson deserves a lot of credit. The NFL model that he has incorporated with Herm Edwards at the helm has been great at ASU. It’s now starting to catch on at other programs and become the wave of the future in the sport amidst the NIL/Transfer Portal era.
Herm Edwards has been a success at Arizona State through three years. But now it’s time to take it to a higher level with a star quarterback in Jayden Daniels leading the way. Edwards and the Sun Devils have done a great job building their talent from what he inherited from Todd Graham. ASU has been a big recruiting player in California, an area that they’ve always wanted to make inroads.
The question for ASU now, can enter the upper crust of the Pac-12 with Oregon, USC, and sometimes Washington and Utah? That’s the next challenge. If Edwards does that, he has the foundation to wake up the sleeping giant of Arizona State.
2. Bronco Mendenhall, Virginia
BYU vs. Virginia, October 30
It’s going to be strange to see Bronco Mendenhall on the opposing sideline at LaVell Edwards Stadium this fall. Mendenhall stated in 2015, after accepting the Virginia job, that he didn’t want to face BYU during his coaching tenure at Virginia due to how much BYU football and the school means to him. But the Cougars had no interest in canceling the game or three-game series.
Mendenhall and his wife Holly have always viewed themselves as builders, and he’s doing that once again at Virginia. In five years at Virginia, Mendenhall has made the Hoos a consistent program in a top-heavy ACC. In 2019, Mendenhall led Virginia to an ACC Championship Game appearance and a bid in the New Year’s Six (Orange Bowl).
Beyond just wins and losses, Mendenhall has been active in working to improve the facilities at Virginia. He donated $500,000 of his own money to improve the facilities for his program.
One thing that has stood out in Mendenhall’s tenure in Charlottesville has been the quarterback play on the field. Virginia has produced some quality QBs in Kurt Benkert, Bryce Perkins, and they have another one who will lead the Hoos in 2021 in Brennan Armstrong.
1. Kyle Whittingham, Utah
BYU vs. Utah, September 11
Was it going to be anyone else? Not only has Kyle Whittingham created one of the most consistent programs out west, but he’s also always found ways to take down his alma mater in heartbreaking fashion. Utah is going for their 10th straight win over the BYU football program, and Whittingham has led the way in the previous nine.
This year’s rivalry game should be an interesting one yet again. Utah looks to have one of the Pac-12’s best defenses and stop the presses; Whittingham loves one of his quarterbacks. Baylor grad transfer Charlie Brewer earned high praise from Whittingham throughout spring ball.
Whittingham landed a contract extension that will keep him as the head coach of the Utes through 2027. Giving him the chance to call his shots as to when he plans to call it a career.
Regardless of what happens in the rivalry game this year, will Whittingham have the team to win the Pac-12 Championship? That’s the one thing escaping Whittingham’s Utah program in the Pac-12 era.
Mitch Harper is a BYU Insider for KSLsports.com and host of the Cougar Tracks Podcast (SUBSCRIBE) and Cougar Sports Saturday (Saturday from 12-3 pm) on KSL Newsradio. Follow him on Twitter: @Mitch_Harper.