Like many seasons for BYU as an independent football program, the Cougars through eight games have faced one of the toughest schedules in the country. According to the Sagarin Rankings, the BYU is ranked 15th in terms of strength of schedule. Another way to put it is only 14 other FBS teams have played a more difficult slate to this point.
After those difficult eight games, the Cougars sit at 4-4 and have been competitive in every game they’ve played. In fact, behind maybe only Tennessee, BYU has been must-see TV for football fans as every game involving the Cougars has gone down to the wire. That is with the exception of the Michigan State game, which we all predicted before the season as an absolute lock for the defending Big Ten champion Spartans. That’s why they play the games right?
There are still a month worth of games remaining for BYU as the Cougars finally get their much-needed bye week, so let’s take the time to dish out some honors at this point of the season.
Offensive MVP: RB Jamaal Williams
Williams has been one of the best backs in college football this season. Some of the momentum that Williams was gaining towards being a finalist for the Doak Walker Award (best running back in college football) was derailed last week after he injured his ankle in practice and was unable to play against Boise State.
In seven games, Williams has rushed for 942 yards (fourth in the FBS) and 10 touchdowns (tied for ninth) and is now BYU’s all-time leading rusher.
The Cougars have been a run-first offense under first-year coordinator Ty Detmer because of how effective Williams has been when healthy.
Defensive MVP: S Kai Nacua
Whenever BYU is looking for a game-changing play to be made, Nacua always delivers for the Cougar defense.
Thanks to a standout senior campaign thus far, Nacua has entered the discussion as one of the greatest safeties in program history. He’s that good. Nacua has five interceptions and is the definition of a ball hawk on defense.
Best Moment of the First Eight Games: Fourth quarter at Michigan State
As mentioned earlier, BYU has had a lot of close calls this season, but the Cougars’ win in East Lansing over Michigan State was not. BYU scored 21 points in the fourth quarter to pull off the 31-14 win over the defending Big Ten champs and a team that was a College Football Playoff participant last season.
Best Newcomer: DE Trajan Pili
Entering 2016, new head coach Kalani Sitake and his staff knew it would be a tall order to replace the pass rush production left by Bronson Kaufusi, a third-round pick in this year’s NFL Draft who had 11 sacks last season, and Sione Takitaki, who was suspended for the 2016 season due to academics.
Enter Pili, a true freshman who returned home from serving an LDS mission in the spring and has emerged as one of BYU’s best pass rushers off the edge. Pili has 3.5 tackles for a loss and 1.5 sacks so far.
Three Things to Watch in the Final Month
1. Seeking bowl eligibility for the 12th consecutive season
With how difficult the 2016 schedule was expected to be for BYU, there were many talking heads that felt the Cougars’ 11-year streak of going to a bowl game would possibly be in jeopardy. BYU is now two wins away from extending that run.
Once the Cougars get their sixth win, they will accept a bid to the San Diego County Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl to face a team from the Mountain West Conference.
2. Will the passing game improve?
BYU is historically known for throwing the football. But 2016 hasn’t been a thing of beauty through the air for the Cougar offense. New offensive coordinator Ty Detmer has implemented his pro-style offense with senior Taysom Hill as the starting quarterback, and despite some criticisms from fans, Hill has been the right choice for BYU all along.
Now going forward, BYU needs to improve in the passing game. With the quality of opponents getting lighter compared to the first eight games, naturally, there should be an improvement. If not, that’ll be a huge disappointment and could potentially tarnish Hill’s legacy in Provo.
Miscommunication in the form of receivers running the wrong or bad routes and poor reads by Hill will need to end if BYU wants to light up the scoreboard and get the two wins it needs to go bowling.
3. How much will QB Tanner Mangum play?
Last season, Mangum went 9-3 as the starter for BYU in relief of an injured Hill. This season, Mangum has appeared in just one game and has had just one snap as the backup. And that one play was a kneel-down to finish off the win at Michigan State.
Mangum was never going to redshirt this season, and with BYU’s opponents easing up down the stretch, it's likely the sophomore gets some time. But do Sitake and Detmer risk the possibility of an injury to Mangum? It’s an interesting question. I’d expect to see Mangum on the field more, but BYU’s future the next two seasons rest on him. He’s too valuable to risk an injury in mop-up duty.
Ranking the Toughest Games Remaining on the Schedule
1. Nov. 5 at Cincinnati
The Big 12 rejects bowl! These two schools were probably not thrilled when Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby and University of Oklahoma president David Boren announced last week that the Big 12 was going to remain at 10 members. Life goes on, and games still need to be played. Last year, these two teams met in Provo and BYU needed 21 unanswered points in the fourth quarter to come away with a 38-24 victory.
Cincinnati is 4-3 right now but the Bearcats are riding some momentum after fifth-year senior quarterback Gunner Kiel threw for 348 yards in his first start of the season.
2. Nov. 26 vs. Utah State
The Old Wagon Wheel is at stake in this pairing of in-state schools that have seen this game turn into more of a rivalry than anyone could have imagined.
The Aggies are 3-4 on the season and like BYU, have had some close calls in a few of their losses.
3. Nov. 19 vs. UMass
Entering the season, the Minutemen were considered to be not just one of the worst teams in football, but possibly the worst out of all 128 FBS programs. The Minutemen are just 1-7 entering Saturday’s game against FCS member Wagner, but they’ve been competitive in several of their games. A fellow FBS independent, UMass gave a pair of SEC teams in Mississippi State and South Carolina everything they could possibly handle.
4. Nov. 12 vs. Southern Utah
When Kalani Sitake was getting started in the coaching profession, the current BYU head coach had a pit stop in Cedar City to coach the Thunderbirds’ offensive line and tight ends in 2003-04.
Also, BYU assistant head coach Ed Lamb was the head coach of the T-Birds from the FCS ranks last season before leaving to join Sitake’s staff in Provo.
— Written by Mitch Harper, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Harper is publisher of Rivals' BYU site, CougarNation.com, and also is the BYU reporter and insider for 1320 KFAN and co-host of "The Cougar Center" podcast. Follow him on Twitter @Mitch_Harper.