The upset of Wisconsin was huge, but Kalani Sitake's Cougars still have work to do in their last six games
BYU has had an interesting first half of the 2018 college football season so far. The Cougars have experienced some great highs but also some terrible lows. BYU finds themselves at 3-3 at the midway point, which is better than many forecasters believed they would be at entering this season. But when you beat a team like Wisconsin on the road, you’d expect a better record based on the adjusted predictions from that game.
Regardless, the Cougars have goals in front of them still with bowl eligibility and a pair of rivalry games in November that should make the second half of the schedule far more interesting than previous ones during its tenure as an FBS Independent.
Offensive MVP: Offensive Line
Tough to pick who was BYU’s offensive MVP because you look at the statistics in every major offensive category, and there’s not much production. But, the Cougars have a good offensive line this year, and they are young. The Arizona and Wisconsin games were the signature moments for this offensive line as they were able to create holes late against each team even when everyone knew a run was coming. Through six games, the front line has been BYU’s offense has to offer.
Defensive MVP: LB Sione Takitaki
Takitaki has had to play out of his usual position the past couple of games due to a season-ending injury to Zayne Anderson. But Takitaki has had moments this season where he has been nearly unblockable. It’ll be interesting to see how he does moving forward at the Mike linebacker, which also is where he projects best as it relates to his NFL prospects.
Best Moment of the First Half: Wisconsin kicker Rafael Gaglianone's missed field goal to seal BYU's upset of the No. 6 Badgers
One of the biggest upsets this season was courtesy of BYU taking down Wisconsin Madison. This game remains the Badgers' lone loss of the season. Will it keep them from making the College Football Playoff? Maybe. But from BYU's perspective that was hands down the best win of the Kalani Sitake era, and quite possibly the most significant victory since the Cougars became an FBS Independent in 2011.
Best Newcomer: K Skyler Southam
For many years, BYU didn’t have a kicker the team could trust from beyond 35 yards. Now with Southam, range isn't as much of an issue as the U.S. Army All-American in high school has done a nice job as a true freshman. His 45-yarder in the fourth quarter against Wisconsin ended up being the game-winner as the Cougars pulled off the massive upset.
Biggest Surprise: Not being competitive vs. Washington and Utah State
After a win at Wisconsin, BYU looked like a team that had an identity and that was going to be a competitive football team against anyone they matched up with. That wasn’t the case as Washington demolished BYU 35-7 and the Cougars' lone score was courtesy of a muffed punt late in the fourth quarter. And against Utah State, the Cougars found themselves down 21-0 early in the second quarter in front of their home crowd. BYU would go on to lose that game 45-20. These two no-shows have been the biggest surprise thus far.
Three Things to Watch in the Second Half
1. Can BYU win three more games to become bowl eligible?
The schedule sets up well that BYU can get six wins and become bowl eligible. If the Cougars can just defend home field (vs. Hawaii, Northern Illinois, New Mexico State) they can guarantee no worse than a .500 record and will go bowling.
2. BYU’s quarterback situation
There has been a lot of debate the past few weeks as to whether or not BYU should make a switch at quarterback, letting true freshman Zach Wilson get his shot as the starter over fifth-year senior Tanner Mangum. Mangum, for the most part, has done what has been asked of him from BYU’s coaching staff by being a game manager. But BYU’s offense, even in wins, hasn’t found much success getting into the end zone. Thursday morning, it was announced that Wilson would replace Mangum under center for Saturday's game against Hawaii. With several tough games remaining on the schedule, fans hope that Wilson will be just the spark this offense needs to string a few more wins together.
3. Can BYU start to find success through the passing game?
With Wilson now under center, the question is can he bring back something that has been missing with this offense? After all, when you think BYU football you think about throwing the pigskin all over the field. The Cougars want to a physical team, and they are. But the narrative that this offense can just run it down opponents' throats is not going to work. BYU still needs to cobble together an effective passing attack, if anything to keep defenses honest and on their toes.
Ranking the Toughest Remaining Games on the Schedule
1. Nov. 24 at Utah
The Cougars have suffered seven consecutive losses to their primary rivals from 45 miles up north. BYU desperately wants to beat Utah and I would argue that the Cougar fan base might be willing to sacrifice a bowl game if it meant being able to secure a victory over the Utes. They want this game in a bad way.
2. Nov. 7 at Boise State
Here's another rivalry game in November for the Cougars. The Broncos haven’t looked as dominant as many expected them to be this season after dropping a game on the blue against San Diego State. But BYU has never won in Boise and it’ll be a tall order again to try and pull that off.
3. Oct. 27 Northern Illinois
Like BYU, Northern Illinois has faced a tough schedule through the first half of the season. Now that the Huskies are starting to play MAC teams, NIU is getting things going on the offensive end. This is a tricky game for BYU that could have the Cougars on upset alert.
4. Oct. 13 Hawaii
Hawaii poses a unique offensive attack with the run-and-shoot led by quarterback Cole McDonald. This matchup has a lot of history behind it, but the Rainbow Warriors still struggle defensively. If the Cougars can’t put up points on these guys, when will they the rest of the season?
5. Nov. 10 at UMass
This is a revenge game for BYU this season. Last year, the Minutemen spoiled BYU’s Senior Day festivities in a game that ultimately cost BYU legend and former offensive coordinator Ty Detmer his job. Once again, UMass has a capable offense that could cause fits for the Cougars.
6. Nov. 17 vs. New Mexico State
The Aggies might be looking at another 50- or 60-year bowl drought based on the way they are playing this season. This is BYU’s only guaranteed win left on the 2018 schedule.
— Written by Mitch Harper, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Harper is BYU Insider for ESPN 960 Sports and Publisher of Cougar Nation, part of the Rivals network. Follow him on Twitter @Mitch_Harper.