SALT LAKE CITY — Kalani Sitake deserved credit for trying. And for taking it in good humor. Following a practice earlier this month, he was asked to name the most interesting thing about this year’s BYU team.
“You’d have to ask them,” he said, glancing toward the field.
Normally coaches cite “family atmosphere,” overall motivation or how much adversity the team has overcome. But Sitake didn’t immediately go there. His idea for the best story?
“Probably how nice the coach is.”
It was an appropriately light comeback. But seconds later he had lapsed into pure coachspeak.
“I think this is a good group, and when you go through some adversity …”
”You can find out how close a unit is …”
“I know our guys kind of have a chip on their shoulder, which is a good position for us to be in. …”
Actually, losing nine games the previous season is never a good position, especially if you have five Power 5 conference opponents ahead. Last year’s team was the worst in over 60 years in Provo. But Sitake could be forgiven for falling back to coaching bromides. Preseason talk is seldom interesting. Most of the time neither are the questions they get asked.
So the season starts this week, and the reports will be flowing. Pressed to define the best storyline on his team, Utah State’s Matt Wells said, “Let me think about that.” There was a several-second pause.
He too gave it his best spur-of-the-moment delivery.
“Hopefully the storyline in December is how we got it turned back around from two years ago. Last year we took a major step in the right direction, and this year we find a way to win close games and compete for a championship in November. That’s what I hope the storyline would be at the end of the year.”
The rundown on the Aggies in August includes a smattering of transfers, 18 returning starters and leadership in key spots.
In other words, the usual stuff.
Utah coach Kyle Whittingham pleads the Fifth Amendment when it comes to picking the most interesting story of 2018.
“We don’t know yet,” coach Whittingham said. “That’s the beauty of college football. Every year, every team is its own separate identity, its own set of circumstances. I mean, they’re all so different. Really you have a general idea going in, but you don’t know for certain until you get going. So to me, that’s the exciting thing about collegiate football: the unknowns and the anticipation. Who’s going to rise to the top, who’s going to disappoint. There’s so much intrigue. To me that’s what it’s all about.”
In honesty, hearing coaches talk about dedication, work ethic, character and unity is like watching ice melt. Here’s something that actually is interesting, though: Two of the state’s three FBS programs have coaches who could get fired. The website coacheshotseat.com ranks Sitake the sixth-most endangered coach in America. It has Wells in a category labeled “safe for now,” but he’s just one spot out of a grouping titled “edge of the hot seat.”
Whittingham is ranked the 82nd likeliest coach to get fired, which means there’s practically no chance.
Wells made it to a bowl game last December, following a one-year absence, but a losing season in 2018 would be his fourth straight. The last Aggie coach to do that was Brent Guy, who got fired after, yes, four losing seasons. (In fairness, Wells has taken his team to four bowl games in five years.) Dave Arslanian was fired by USU after just two losing seasons.
Another story is that USU — and the rest of its conference — continues to lose ground on teams from power conferences. Is that OK? Can they do anything about it?
No and no.
Most intriguing for the Aggies is whether they can surpass the Cougars in prominence. It’s unlikely, given the economic realities, but USU has defeated BYU two of the last four games.
Speaking of the Cougars, here’s a compelling story that Sitake isn’t likely to address: Tanner Mangum must get back his freshman confidence, or he’ll be one of the bigger shrinking acts in BYU history. He once was a rising star.
Another intriguing story is that Austin Collie’s little brother is on the BYU team, and he’s sounding almost as chippy as his “magic happens” sibling. Asked last week about the talent in the Cougars’ receiving corps, Dylan Collie said, “Better than some of you (media) guys have made it sound. A lot better.”
A BYU player barking back at the media: now that’s interesting.
Here’s another good story: BYU is making improvements on its stadium. Not major ones, but still, it says something about the school’s plan to continue fielding a football team.
You can’t use the stadium for fireworks every day of the year.
Utah has its own compelling stadium story. With south end zone renovation plans moving forward, will fans continue to pack the house for a team that doesn’t win championships? How long can the Utes tout their membership in a power conference before people start to yawn?
An additional story on the Utes is Jack Tuttle, not merely because he was the most highly recruited quarterback in school history, but because he might not stick around. He has said nothing to indicate that, but starter Tyler Huntley is only a junior. If Tuttle is as good as advertised, does he want to wait two years to play?10 comments on this story
Some have suggested Whittingham might have hit his ceiling as a coach. He has done impressive things with the program — the best bowl percentage in NCAA history — but has no Pac-12 division championships to show for it. Ron McBride got fired when he had taken the program as far as he could.
Has Whittingham peaked?
These subjects all would make fascinating stories this season, if coaches wanted to talk about them. Expect them to stick to safer things, like the second-string guard’s progress in the weight room. To them, that’s as interesting as it gets.