Can BYU sustain momentum from its best season in two decades? That's the question facing the Cougars when they open the 2021 college football season against Arizona in Las Vegas on Saturday night.
BYU finished with an 11-1 record and a No. 11 ranking in the AP Top 25 a year ago — the best record and highest end-of-season ranking for the Cougars since 1996. Now BYU will have to prove it can keep things rolling even while breaking in a new starting quarterback, replacing several offensive linemen, and blending in multiple new starters on the defensive line and in the secondary. If the Cougars can fill those holes, they have a chance to navigate a considerably tougher schedule with success.
Arizona is going through many new changes of its own. The Wildcats have a new head coach, Jedd Fisch, at the helm and enter the season riding a 12-game losing streak extending back to 2019. It will take major retooling on defense to lift Arizona out of the cellar. The Wildcats finished last in total defense in the Pac-12 each of the previous two seasons and have ranked 10th or lower in that category six out of the last seven seasons.
Arizona holds a 12-11-1 lead over BYU in the all-time series. However, the Cougars are 2-0 against the Wildcats under Kalani Sitake, winning in the 2016 season opener and again in the 2018 season opener.
BYU vs. Arizona
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 4 at 10:30 p.m. ET
Where: Allegiant Stadium (Las Vegas)
Spread: BYU -11.5
When BYU Has the Ball
Replacing a quarterback as good as Zach Wilson is never a simple task. Still, the Cougars are pretty confident about what his successor, Jaren Hall, can do. Hall won the starting job in fall camp, beating out Baylor Romney and Jacob Conover. He doesn't have as strong of an arm as Wilson but is more mobile and can keep plays alive with his legs. Hall is also an accurate passer. He threw for 420 yards and a touchdown while completing 67 percent of his passes as Wilson's primary backup in 2019 before injuries ended his season.
An experienced backfield will make the transition from Wilson to Hall smoother. Tyler Allgeier enjoyed a breakout season a year ago by rushing for 1,130 yards and 13 touchdowns on 150 carries. Lopini Katoa gives the Cougars a solid runner and pass-catcher to compliment Allgeier. Katoa totaled 737 all-purpose yards and eight touchdowns last season. Hall also has proven receivers in Gunner Romney, Neil Pau'u, Washington transfer Puka Nacua, Utah transfer Samson Nacua, and Isaac Rex, who will help open things up downfield.
Arizona hit the transfer portal to fill holes at linebacker and in the secondary. Whether it pays dividends remains to be seen. The Wildcats could not stop any opponents from running on them last season, giving up 270.6 yards per game on the ground. That's good news for a BYU offense that is more than capable of moving the chains in the run game.
When Arizona Has the Ball
The Wildcats are taking the unusual step of rotating quarterbacks against BYU. Gunner Cruz and Will Plummer will both see snaps behind center. Cruz will start against the Cougars, but the plan is for Plummer to rotate with the Washington State transfer throughout the game in a platoon system. Plummer struggled last season, his first at Arizona, throwing for 388 yards and three interceptions while completing only 54 percent of his passes. Cruz played in one game for Washington State last season and completed 5 of 7 passes for 34 yards and a touchdown.
Running the ball will be a bigger point of emphasis with uncertainty at quarterback. Michael Wiley has the potential to be a game-changer with a bigger role in the offense. Wiley averaged 7.2 yards per carry on just 31 carries a season ago. Northwestern transfer Drake Anderson will also be a factor in the backfield. Anderson led his previous team in rushing in 2019, totaling 634 yards and three touchdowns. He totaled 926 rushing yards and five touchdowns over three seasons at Northwestern.
BYU is rebuilding in spots on defense, but the Cougars return plenty of experienced players from a unit that ranked 10th nationally in total defense (317.4 ypg) in 2020. One weakness is BYU's inability to consistently pressure the quarterback. It will fall on either Cruz or Plummer to use the extra time in the pocket to their advantage.
BYU is 4-1 in season openers under Sitake. Two of those victories have come over better Arizona teams than this one. Even with so much lost production from last season, the Cougars are a superior team on both sides of the ball. The Wildcats have produced one winning season in the last five years and haven't beaten an FBS opponent in a season-opener since 2015. BYU should have no trouble claiming its third straight win over Arizona.
Prediction: BYU 31, Arizona 20
Podcast: Complete Week 1 Preview, Predictions & Picks Against the Spread
– Written by John Coon, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sports journalist based in Utah. Follow him on Twitter @johncoonsports.