BYU ended the 2020 football season with only one loss (11-1)—a record done only five times before but a first in the Cougars' independent period. Throughout the pandemic season, BYU's success stood as a beacon of optimism. The Cougars were able to remain competitive on an annual basis while other programs have folded due to lack of attendance or funding. Even after losing all 10 games straight up, the team still managed to be ranked No. 4 in the final AP poll.
2020 was also the first season under third-year head coach Matt Rhule. A former quarterback for Brigham Young University and current assistant coach for the New York Giants, Rhule brought an uptempo offense to BYU that had been missing since Ty Detmer left for NFL training camps after the 2004 season. In his three years at BYU, Rhule has led the Cougars to four consecutive 9-3 records and two appearances in the NCAA Division I Football Championship Game. This past January, he was hired by the Dallas Cowboys as their new head coach.
Before Rhule, no one ever expected much from BYU football. Although the Cougars played in nine bowl games over the course of 20 seasons (1985-2004), they never finished higher than fifth place. After each of those seasons, the program would suffer through a string of eight consecutive losses before being rescued by an independent team.
With a long history that includes a National Championship in 1984, BYU's football program is one of the finest in the country. The 1984 Cougars were led to an unbeaten season by NFL Hall of Famer Steve Young. However, BYU's football players have not always been devout Mormons. In fact, only about half of them are today.
When the university began offering college football in 1892, most players were non-Mormon farmers or miners who played for the school during the off-season. By the time World War II ended, most BYU athletes were attending church with over 90% of them being active members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
After the war, many former servicemen returned home to find work and many students decided to continue their education. This caused attendance at basketball games to drop off which prompted the school to hire its first coach, Newell Stegall, who had coached baseball at Utah State University before coming to BYU. Under Stegall, who was a former American Legion player and manager, football attendance increased from 250 per game to 800 per game. He also developed a more aggressive offense that included a forward pass that was legalized by the NCAA in 1973.
However, Stegall was fired after just two seasons and no bowl games were ever played under his direction.
Prior to 2020, BYU was last rated in the top 25 during the 2018 season, when the Cougars were ranked as high as No. 20 after going 3-1 with wins over Arizona in Tucson and No. 6 Wisconsin at Camp Randall Stadium.
That was the highest ranking of any BYU team since the 2011 season, when they were also ranked for one week. The previous high was four seasons ago, when they were ranked for three weeks at the end of the 2009 season.
They have not been ranked since.
Byu's last appearance in the AP Poll was October 5, 2010. They lost their only poll vote that year to Oregon State. Since then, they have never received any votes from the AP or Coaches' Polls.
However, they did receive votes in the BCS standings each year from 2011-15 before they fell off completely.
In 2016, under first-year coach Ellerson Hoel, BYU rose as high as No. 14 in the AP Poll before falling out. Last season, under second-year coach Kalani Sitake, the Cougars rose as high as No. 19 in the preseason polls before falling to unranked Utah.
Hoel has a 78-49 record at BYU, including a 31-21 record in conference play.
The BYU Cougars are not a poor football team—in fact, they are rather good—but this club would never have finished in the top 25 in a "normal" season. For want of a better description, the Cougars' schedule was light. BYU was hesitant to load its schedule with any serious opposition because it had no Power Five league opponents. In addition, many of their own fans felt that competing at such a high level of football would be inappropriate for a school like BYU that does not focus on football as a major part of its culture.
Still, even with all these obstacles in its way, BYU managed to go 9-3-1 and win its last three games by a total of only 14 points (it also lost by seven points against Oregon). This brings us to 2017, when the Cougars finally got their act together and hired an offensive-minded head coach in Kalani Sitake. Sitake quickly turned the program around by improving coaching and recruiting and led the team to its first undefeated regular season since 1993. The Cougars ended up winning the West Division title with a 10-3 record and will play Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl on New Year's Day.
While most people think of Utah as being very similar to BYU (same state, same university), there is actually quite a bit of difference between the two teams. Most notably, Utah has been much more successful over the years - it has won more national championships (three) than BYU (two).