We are aware that certain conferences and universities will not be competing this fall due to ongoing concerns surrounding COVID-19. However, for the sake of content, we have constructed these rankings as if a regular cross country season will happen.
BYU was not supposed to win the national title last fall.
Their 2017 and 2018 teams were arguably better than the group they entered 2019 with and it also didn't help that one of their top scorers from the year prior (Clayson Shumway) sustained an injury which kept him out for the entire 2019 season.
On top of that, the Northern Arizona men looked unstoppable as they were taking down some of the best teams in the country with ease. In the eyes of many, the Lumberjacks were at the peak of their dynasty.
But fate works in funny ways and the Cougars instead put together a magical performance at the NCAA Championships which resulted in them standing atop of the podium and earning themselves a national crown.
Now, after losing two veterans from their 2019 lineup, this team somehow looks even better than last year’s group, depending on who you ask.
Cross country is weird that way.
* * *
Last year's team started off their 2019 cross country season at the Bill Dellinger Invitational where they faced the likes of Oregon, UCLA and a handful of other strong programs. Based on our preseason rankings, it seemed fair to suggest that the Cougars secure the win at this meet.
However, the absence of Clayson Shumway left the BYU men vulnerable at the second-half of their lineup which resulted in the Oregon Ducks taking home the win by six points. UCLA finished 3rd overall, only two points behind the men from Provo, Utah.
Conner Mantz took home the win while Heslington was 8th, but the gaps behind them weren't enough to fend off the Ducks. Even so, it was an early-season rust-buster and a result that didn't elicit a ton of concern.
Sure enough, BYU rebounded at Pre-Nationals as they went on to upset a very strong Colorado team. Mantz was once again the individual winner while Heslington emerged as a surprise 4th place finisher ahead of both Klecker and Dressel. A 14th place finish by Brandon Garnica and an 18th place finish by Daniel Carney gave the Cougars four men in the top-20.
A huge two-point win over Colorado likely gave this team a massive boost in confidence, but the gap between their fourth and their fifth runners was a minor concern, as was the continued absence of Shumway.
BYU later turned on cruise control for the postseason, easily getting by the WCC Championships and the Mountain Regional Championships without much of a problem. After all, they were more concerned about their return to Terre Haute.
In what may have been one of the biggest national team title upsets since the early 2000's (and maybe ever), the BYU men put together a performance that will go down in the history books.
The Cougars got out to a hot start and never relinquished their lead in Terre Haute. They ended the race with a total of three All-Americans as well as two others who just missed out on the same honor.
The combination of Mantz-Carney-Heslington-Garnica-Owens was the final lineup combination which gave BYU finishes of 3-17-21-42-45.
* * *
As we look at this team in a theoretical 2020 cross country season, it is hard to ignore the loss of experienced veteran scorers. Both Daniel Carney and Jake Heslington were All-Americans last year, each playing pivotal roles in keeping the BYU men as a top-ranked team throughout last fall. The scoring potency that they leave behind is admittedly a lot.
For most teams, these would be boarderline impossible losses to overcome, especially for a team that is trying to get back on the podium the following year.
Of course, BYU isn't like most teams.
* * *
I'm not going to spend much time talking about Conner Mantz (TSR #1), mainly because the only thing that I can say about him is that he's really, really good.
Mantz is the top-ranked individual in our preseason rankings this year and feels like an automatic one-point scorer in almost any race he toes the line for. Teare could have challenged him for NCAA gold this fall, but from a scoring standpoint, Mantz would have provided as few points as possible.
Now let's get to the important part: finding replacements for last year's scorers.
Clinger has returned from his mission trip which he left for after the 2017 cross country season. During that lone season of his college career, Clinger quietly emerged as a top-tier scorer and eventually ended the season as an All-American in 24th place. He was only a freshman at the time.
Now, Clinger is back and based on everything that we've been told (and have seen in time trials) the BYU ace is back in tip-top shape and ready to contribute as an All-American-caliber talent.
We then come to Shumway who was sidelined during the 2019 cross country due to an injury. The 8:36 steeplechaser also owns a personal best of 28:36 for 10,000 meters and was an All-American in cross country at the 2018 national meet (where he placed 32nd overall).
Between Clinger and Shumway, it looks like BYU will have replenished their All-American arsenal from last year without much of a problem.
* * *
Now for the other returners on last year's team.
Despite being split into a different section of the article, Brandon Garnica (TSR #50) deserves some attention as a top-ranked runner and a very realistic All-American threat whenever competition returns.
Between a 14th place finish at Pre-Nationals and a 42nd place finish at the NCAA Championships, Garnica gives the Cougars a very solid and very underrated fourth scorer who is capable of making some noise (as evidenced by his personal best of 13:45 (5k) from this past winter).
Not far behind Garnica is Matt Owens. The 8:32 steeplechaser was relatively quiet last fall, but his 45th place finish at NCAA's was a massive boost to this team.
Prior to last year's national meet, we didn't see anything that would indicate Owens finishing 45th in the nation. At the same time, his success on the track suggested that a performance like this was possible.
We then come to Michael Ottensen who could be a nice piece of the puzzle when it comes to BYU's hypothetical 2020 lineup. Although he was a bit inconsistent throughout last fall, he still finished in 87th place at the national meet (which would be a scoring position for most teams). He also owns a personal best of 28:58 for 10,000 meters.
Connor Weaver is another key name to watch. He had a pair of solid performances at the WCC Championships and Mountain Regional Championships (placing 12th and 13th, respectively), but didn't have his greatest day at the national meet.
Even so, Weaver has a ton of experience, has run 29:02 for 10,000 meters and was a 10k national qualifier on the track in 2019.
* * *
BYU also has a variety of men who could step up and become varsity contributors. The only problem is that we just don't know who that will be (yet).
Incoming transfer Elijah Armstrong will finish his eligibility with the BYU men after spending some time with Boise State. While he's not the same scorer that Heslington and Carney were last year, Armstrong still emerged as a great distance running talent during his time with the Broncos. He secured a personal best of 13:58 in the 5000 meters and finished 70th at the NCAA XC Championships back in 2015 when he was only a freshman.
We don't know where in this varsity lineup Armstrong will be whenever competition returns, but we do feel confident that he could be a top seven runner and an underrated name who could end up being a valuable contributor.
Truthfully, it feels like you could point to almost anyone on this roster and they could probably step into a varisty role. Between Adam Wood, Garrett Marsing, Zac Janklin, McKay Johns and Kramer Morton, the options are endless in terms of crafting a new varsity lineup.
Heck, we haven't even mentioned Aidan Troutner, the 2017 NXN champion who has returned from his mission trip. If he is able to regain his fitness (and based on time trials, it looks like he is), then he could be yet another key piece of this lineup.
Incoming freshmen such as Easton Allred (4:05 mile, 5th at 2018 NXN) and Carson Belnap (8:51 3200m, 9th at 2019 NXN) are two high-level recruits who could have had an instant impact had competition taken place this season.
However, we should note that although Allred is listed on BYU's 2020 roster, Belnap is not. Could this be because he was going on a mission trip? Truthfully, we aren't sure, but that's our best guess.
* * *
Overall, it's hard to dislike this team. They have (arguably) the best cross country runner in the NCAA, two proven All-American talents behind him, two more potential All-Americans after those guys and a load of options who will offer extensive depth. We feel relatively comfortable placing this team at our TSR #2 spot.
Admittedly, we do have questions about how Clinger will perform after returning from his mission trip and how Shumway will rebound after his injury from last year. Those are two key pieces of this team and how they race will determine how well BYU does as a team whenever competition returns.
We also don't have a ton of clarity as to what the backend of this lineup will look like, but we're not as concerned about that given BYU's proven ability to develop depth.
Even so, this is a team that could be just as good as last year's title-winning squad. Not many programs have been able to say that.
We won't get to see what this team looks like in 2020, but make no mistake, they might have been the only squad capable of taking down the Northern Arizona Lumberjacks (again) this fall.