Cougars' independent slate this fall consists of six games against Power 5 teams
BYU has not been able to establish much consistency over back-to-back seven-win seasons. The Cougars have seen wins over major Power 5 conference opponents interspersed with head-scratching losses to mediocre Group of 5 schools. Will this be the season BYU finally changes the narrative?
The schedule does not do the Cougars any favors in their quest to improve on last year's 7-6 campaign. BYU will play four straight P5 opponents in September and face a total of six P5 teams in 2020. The schedule also includes three top-tier Mountain West opponents. Scratching out seven victories against this gauntlet will require the Cougars to stay healthy and improve their depth at key positions.
Having dual-threat quarterback Zach Wilson at 100 percent will make a significant difference. Wilson missed a large chunk of his sophomore season with a thumb injury and struggled to regain his form after coming back near the season's end. Top pass catcher Matt Bushman is back and Utah graduate transfer Devonta'e Henry-Cole promises to fill a big hole in the backfield. On defense, the Cougars are stacked at linebacker but need to fill holes on the line and in the secondary.
How everything comes together will determine how well BYU weathers what promises to be its toughest schedule yet since becoming an FBS independent.
Bye: Week 9
Week 1 — Sept. 3 at Utah (Salt Lake City)
Utah has a chance to make Holy War history. Neither BYU nor Utah has won more than nine straight games during the course of this longstanding rivalry. The Utes will have a shot to make it 10 in a row in September. Utah must replace offensive stars Tyler Huntley and Zack Moss. Additionally, the Utes will be rebuilding their defense after losing nine starters from last season. Still, Utah's overall depth, talent, speed, and athleticism are likely to give BYU the usual amount of trouble.
Week 2 — Sept. 12 vs. Michigan State (Provo, Utah)
First-year head coach Mel Tucker brings the Spartans to Provo for the first time ever. BYU pulled away for a memorable 31-14 victory over Michigan State in head coach Kalani Sitake's debut season back in 2016. The Spartans have been stuck in the mud since that time. Like the Cougars, Michigan State is coming off back-to-back seven-win seasons. Even with Tucker at the helm, the Spartans aren't likely to deviate from the grind-it-out, physical style of football they played under Mark Dantonio.
Week 3 — Sept. 19 at Arizona State (Tempe, Ariz.)
These former WAC rivals are clashing for the first time since 1998 when BYU knocked off a Top-25 Sun Devils squad 26-6 at Cougar Stadium. The Cougars have won two straight in the series, but Arizona State leads 20-7 all-time. This will be the third consecutive physical opponent for BYU to start the season. Arizona State will have to replace top running back Eno Benjamin. Sophomore quarterback Jayden Daniels still gives the offense some playmaking punch. Daniels tallied 2,943 yards and 17 touchdowns through the air as a freshman. Defensively, the Sun Devils should be solid again and make it hard for the Cougars to finish drives.
Week 4 — Sept. 26 at Minnesota (Minneapolis)
The Golden Gophers tunneled their way into contending for a Big Ten divisional title last season after opening the season with nine straight victories. Now head coach P.J. Fleck rows the boat into a first-ever meeting with the Cougars. Minnesota quarterback Tanner Morgan will push BYU's secondary to the limits. Morgan set 11 school records a year ago while throwing for 3,253 yards, 30 touchdowns and completing 66 percent of his passes.
Week 5 — Oct. 2 vs. Utah State (Provo, Utah)
How will the Aggies fare without Jordan Love? That's a big concern for the offense after Love decided to forego his senior season and enter the 2020 NFL Draft. Utah State took some definite steps back on both sides of the ball last season. It opened the door for BYU to avenge back-to-back losses in the Battle for the Old Wagon Wheel and claim a 42-14 victory. This could be a tricky game for the Cougars who will likely be a little beat up after playing four straight physical opponents in September.
Week 6 — Oct. 10 vs. Missouri (Provo, Utah)
BYU split the previous two games with Missouri – winning the 1983 Holiday Bowl on a trick play with Steve Young and falling 20-16 in 2015 after a fourth-quarter rally came up short. Missouri is rebuilding under first-year head coach Eliah Drinkwitz after sputtering to a 2-5 finish last season. Drinkwitz's first challenge will be to shore up a mediocre offense. The Tigers did not score more than 24 points in a game in their final seven contests of 2019.
Week 7 — Oct. 16 vs. Houston (Provo, Utah)
Offensive fireworks were in plentiful supply when these two teams last met in 2013 and '14. BYU won both previous games in this Cougar vs. Cougar clash. It could be a fun shootout again. Houston is rebuilding in its second season under head coach Dana Holgorsen after winning just four games a year ago. Still, Holgorsen fielded many potent offensive teams at West Virginia behind his innovative fly sweep. If the Cougars can take a step forward in year two, they will offer BYU a stiff mid-season challenge.
Week 8 — Oct. 24 at Northern Illinois (Bridgeview, Ill.)
The Huskies scratched out a 7-6 victory in Provo two seasons ago after forcing BYU to stall out on multiple fourth-quarter drives. Northern Illinois is no longer the defensive behemoth it was in 2018. It won five games a year ago and missed out on a bowl game for just the second time since 2008. The Huskies will need to improve on an offense that finished in the bottom third of the MAC in points and yards per game to have a chance to knock off the Cougars again.
Week 10 — Nov. 6 at Boise State (Boise, Idaho)
BYU has never won a game on the Smurf Turf. The Cougars came close in each of their last two trips to Boise in 2016 and '18, taking the Broncos down to the final minute each time. BYU pulled off a 28-25 upset a year ago behind a few third-quarter razzle-dazzle plays by Baylor Romney and Matt Bushman. If sophomore quarterback Hank Bachmeier is fully healthy, beating the Broncos two years in a row will be tough. Boise State leads the rivalry series 7-3.
Week 11 — Nov. 14 vs. San Diego State (Provo, Utah)
Brady Hoke returns for his second stint as head coach after Rocky Long unexpectedly resigned and returned to New Mexico to be a defensive coordinator. Hoke's immediate challenge will be to find a way to improve an offense that ranked in the bottom 20 among FBS teams in yards and points per game. San Diego State relied heavily on one of the nation's best defenses last season. The Aztecs ranked second nationally in scoring defense (12.7 ppg) and fifth in the FBS in total defense (287.8 ypg). BYU totaled 416 yards in a 13-3 loss to San Diego State last season, but could not find a way to finish drives deep in Aztec territory.
Week 12 — Nov. 21 vs. North Alabama (Provo, Utah)
The Lions are entering their third season as a full-fledged FCS football program after transitioning from the NCAA Division II ranks. BYU has not lost to an FCS team since the subdivision came into being as NCAA I-AA in 1978. It's difficult to see the Cougars bucking that recent history against North Alabama.
Week 13 — Nov. 28 at Stanford (Stanford, Calif.)
The Cardinal find themselves in rare rebuilding mode after falling apart last season. Stanford finished 11th in the Pac-12 in several key offensive categories – including rushing offense, scoring offense, and total offense. It added up to a 4-8 season – the team's fewest wins in a decade. That does not mean BYU is in a prime position to snag a victory in 2020. The Cougars lost both previous meetings with the Cardinal and have earned just one true road win against Pac-12 opponents over the past five seasons.
— Written by John Coon, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Coon has more than a decade of experience covering sports for different publications and outlets, including The Associated Press, Salt Lake Tribune, ESPN, Deseret News, MaxPreps, Yahoo! Sports and many others. Follow him on Twitter @johncoonsports.
(Top photo courtesy of byucougars.com)