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Provo • In the end, after senior safety Kai Nacua's interception preserved the 24-21 win over Wyoming in the Poinsettia Bowl, BYU's 2016 football season evened out.

In head coach Kalani Sitake's first season, the Cougars lost some games they could have won, and won some games they could have lost. They finished with a 9-4 record against an array of Power 5 and upper-tier Group of 5 conference foes that athletic director Tom Holmoe assembled in BYU's sixth season as a college football independent. But it wasn't totally satisfying.

It was a good season, not a great one. The Cougars displayed toughness and resiliency after a 1-3 start with eight wins in their final nine games. By most accounts, they earned a B or a B-plus in terms of a letter grade, while causing fans to wonder what might have been.

"We improved a lot," Sitake said after the eighth win, a 28-10 conquest of Utah State. "The goal was to get better every week, and obviously when you win games, it looks better. Our team became closer the more we play with each other. … It became a lot more comfortable, and the seniors have been the key to it."

An A grade was within reach. The numbers are etched into memory: four losses by a total of eight points, an NCAA record for the fewest points separating a four-loss team from an unbeaten season. The word of the season was close — wins, and losses.

Heartbreakers, nail-biters, thrillers, cliff-hangers, suspense-filled — all those descriptions applied, in virtually every game through October, and then again in December.

"We sure didn't shy away from adventure," offensive lineman Tuni Kanuch said.

The Cougars tied an NCAA record for most games in a season decided by three points or fewer, seven, and that count doesn't even include the 28-21 double-overtime win over Mississippi State or the 31-14 win at Michigan State when they scored three fourth-quarter touchdowns after leading 10-7 entering the fourth quarter.

The biggest what-if for BYU came in Week 2, after rival Utah stopped quarterback Taysom Hill's two-point conversion attempt to preserve the 20-19 victory. What if Hill had reached the end zone — or first-year offensive coordinator Ty Detmer had dialed up a more effective play — after Hill's 7-yard touchdown run with 18 seconds left got the Cougars to within a point?

The Cougars played arguably their worst game of the season a week later, losing 17-14 to a below-average UCLA team in a game that really wasn't that close. Then they came up short against now-No. 16 West Virginia, losing 35-32 when Hill's pass was deflected and then intercepted by Maurice Fleming near the goal line after BYU had driven to the West Virginia 28.

Few foresaw a turnaround at that time, but the Cougars would lose once more the rest of the year, while gradually becoming a dominant second-half team that wore down opponents with a rushing attack offensively and clamping down on defense after halftime in most games. The 28-27 loss at Boise State on Oct. 20 was another close affair, the Cougars having played without offensive MVP, Jamaal Williams, who finished with 1,375 yards despite missing three games and substantial parts of two others with an ankle injury.

Fittingly, perhaps, the Cougars snapped their three-bowl losing skid last week in roughly the same way they lost to West Virginia — Nacua's pick came with 1:22 remaining after Wyoming had driven to the BYU 32.

"I take wins no matter how they come, but it would be nice to not keep them so close," Sitake said.

Off the field and scoreboard, the season will be remembered for how Sitake brought a new energy to the program after Bronco Mendenhall left for Virginia. He tinkered with the lineup to get players into positions where they could excel, instilled confidence into the program and preached respect for opponents and sportsmanship and clean play that some found lacking under the former regime.

"Kalani, I think he got me when he first came in," Williams said after the bowl game. "He was totally like, I ain't your bishop, I ain't none of that. I'm your football coach. … He came in and he said what he was going to do. He talked the talk and walked the walk and he put in so many things at BYU that we never knew could happen."

So what's next?

Every assistant coach is expected to return, and rising junior Tanner Mangum will take over for Hill after a sobering 8-for-15 passing performance in wet, difficult conditions in the bowl game with one interception and one fortunate touchdown pass. Expectations will be high for Mangum, but the Dec. 21 performance showed he's far from a finished product.

Offensively, it will be difficult to replace Hill, Williams, receiver Nick Kurtz and left tackle Andrew Eide.

Defensively, the biggest losses will be Nacua, cornerback Michael Davis and defensive linemen/linebackers Harvey Langi, Sae Tautu, Logan Taele and Travis Tuiloma. On special teams, punter Jonny Linehan, kicker Rhett Almond and deep snapper Matt Foley all return, but valuable holder and receiver Mitch Juergens graduates, as does his brother, punt returner Garrett Juergens.

Sitake won't say what his biggest recruiting needs are, but the Cougars need talent upgrades at receiver and tight end and more depth at defensive line, a position decimated by injuries later in the season.

And some more late-game magic wouldn't hurt, either.

Twitter: @drewjay —

BYU by the numbers in 2016

Category National rank Per game

Scoring offense 62nd 29.5 ppg.

Scoring defense 16th 19.5 ppg.

Total offense 71st 399.1 ypg.

Total defense 35th 365.0 ypg.

* Through games of Dec. 26

BYU in the national rankings

ESPN Football Power Index • 33rd

Jeff Sagarin CFB Power Rankings • 31st

CBS Sports Power Ranking s• 47th

Sagarin's Strength of Schedule • 71st

*—Through games of Dec. 26

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