Kalani Sitake's Cougars have a brutal September slate to navigate
BYU took some steps forward a year ago, reaching the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl after a disastrous 2017 season. Can the Cougars climb even higher under the leadership of sophomore quarterback Zach Wilson in 2019? The schedule will challenge BYU early but sets up for a strong finish.
September will be a brutal month for the Cougars. BYU faces four Power 5 opponents in four weeks to open the season, a stretch that features Utah, Tennessee, USC, and Washington. The one advantage for the Cougars is that the Utes, Trojans, and Huskies all have to travel to Provo. If BYU can find a way to spring an early upset or two, an eight- or nine-win season is within reach once the schedule becomes a little less daunting in October and November.
12. Nov. 16 vs. Idaho State
BYU's home finale should not cause the Cougars much trouble at all. Idaho State has played BYU five other times dating back to 1932 and has lost all five games. The Cougars trounced the Bengals 59-13 in the most recent meeting between the two teams in 2013.
Idaho State has made some strides forward under head coach Rob Phenicie. The Bengals posted a 6-5 record and went 5-3 in Big Sky Conference play in Phenicie's second season last fall. Still, BYU hasn't lost to an FCS opponent since FBS and FCS teams split into separate divisions in 1978. Idaho State isn't likely to reverse that trend.
11. Nov. 23 at UMass
This marks the fourth straight season BYU has tangled with the Minutemen. UMass lost its top passer, top rusher, and top receiver on offense from a season ago and return just six starters overall. It is a recipe for a long rebuilding season, especially when you consider that the Minutemen had one of the worst defenses in the FBS a year ago.
The Cougars earned a 35-16 road victory over UMass last season. BYU scored 35 unanswered points and held the Minutemen to season lows in total yards (285) and passing yards (183).
10. Nov. 9 vs. Liberty
This will be the first-ever meeting between the two FBS independents. Liberty hired former Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze in the offseason and will boast an up-tempo offense this fall. Buckshot Calvert and Frankie Hickson will power that attack. Calvert threw for 3,068 yards a year ago. Hickson added 1,032 yards on the ground.
Bowl eligibility could be at stake for both BYU and Liberty going into this early November contest. It will inject some interest into an otherwise mediocre game, if such a scenario unfolds.
9. Oct. 12 at South Florida
Historically, games in Florida haven't turned out so well for the Cougars. BYU is 0-7 all-time in the Sunshine State — including three bowl game setbacks. Can the Cougars get over the hump against South Florida?
USF fell apart last season once the schedule turned tougher. The Bulls reeled off six straight losses by an average margin of 19.2 points after racing to their first 7-0 start in school history. South Florida returns plenty of firepower on offense. Senior quarterback Blake Barnett threw for 2,710 yards last season and Jordan Cronkrite ran for 1,121 yards. USF will need to shore up a defense that allowed 446.6 yards per game, including 247.5 yards on the ground.
8. Sept. 28 at Toledo
When these two teams clashed in 2016, they combined for 108 points, 14 touchdowns, and 1,278 total yards on offense. Will the scoreboard get a similar workout in the rematch? A road game at Toledo will definitely test the Cougars on both sides of the ball.
7. Nov. 30 at San Diego State
There's no love lost between these former Mountain West Conference rivals. The Aztecs have dropped six straight in the series dating back to 2005, with their most recent setback being a 23-6 loss in the 2012 Poinsettia Bowl. San Diego State likely won't snap the skid against BYU, though, if it can't breathe new life into an anemic offense.
The Aztecs averaged just 20.6 points per game last season and bottomed out in a 27-0 Frisco Bowl loss to Ohio. Rocky Long is going to mix in spread concepts this season. Juwan Washington will remain the focal point. Washington finished a yard shy of a 1,000-yard season a year ago after missing four games with a fractured collarbone. If he can stay healthy over a full season, the offense may get enough of a boost to complement an always rugged Aztec defense.
6. Oct. 19 vs. Boise State
The Broncos scratched out a win in the final seconds against the Cougars last season. Boise State has dominated the series, winning seven of nine games. BYU could be in decent position to finally grab a victory this time around. It would be the first for the Cougars over the Broncos since 2015.
Boise State is breaking in a new quarterback and running back. Chase Cord is the likely successor to Brett Rypien. Cord threw for 67 yards and rushed for 109 yards last season, but is coming off an ACL injury. Finding a new running back is less certain following Alexander Mattison's departure to the NFL. Andrew Van Buren, the top returning rusher, only gained 163 yards on 34 carries last season.
5. Nov. 2 at Utah State
The Aggies have had a decided upper hand in the Battle for the Old Wagon Wheel over the last two seasons. In those back-to-back wins, Utah State has won by an average margin of 20.5 points. The Aggies haven't recorded three straight victories over BYU since running off four wins in a row from 1971-74.
Gary Andersen returns for his second stint as head coach. Andersen will have an elite quarterback at his disposal in Jordan Love and a tough defense returning seven starters. During a breakout sophomore season, Love set multiple school records while throwing for 3,567 yards and 32 touchdowns. It helped Utah State lead the Mountain West in scoring offense (47.5 ppg) and total offense (497.4 ypg).
4. Sept. 14 vs. USC
Clay Helton is on the hot seat after the Trojans posted their first losing season since 2000 a year ago. USC has a brutal schedule over the first half of the season, with games against Utah, Stanford, Notre Dame, and Washington. This means that the Trojans can't afford to overlook BYU.
JT Daniels showed promise as a true freshman quarterback and his continued progression will likely be the x-factor on USC bouncing back in 2019. Daniels threw for 2,672 yards and 14 touchdowns in 11 starts a year ago. The Trojans will need to be better at finishing drives to avoid opening the door for an upset loss to the Cougars.
3. Sept. 7 at Tennessee
The Volunteers are starting a new chapter under first-year head coach Jeremy Pruitt and trying to erase the sting of a 5-7 campaign last fall. Pruitt added a top-15 recruiting class and returns 15 starters, so there's more than enough talent in place to climb the SEC East ladder in a hurry. Jarrett Guarantano could speed up that climb if he builds on a season where he threw for 1,907 yards and 12 touchdowns.
This is the first meeting between the two schools. BYU is no stranger to SEC road trips since going independent in 2011. Tennessee is the fourth SEC school that the Cougars have faced on the road in the last 10 seasons. BYU is 1-2 in the previous three road contests, with a win over Ole Miss and losses to Missouri and Mississippi State.
2. Aug. 29 vs. Utah
For two-and-a-half quarters last season, BYU appeared to be in prime position to score a huge upset in the Holy War. It came crashing down when Utah ripped off 28 unanswered points to beat the Cougars 35-27. The Pac-12 South champs ultimately handed the Cougars an eighth straight defeat in the rivalry series.
Preventing a ninth straight loss will be a mammoth task. Utah returns its entire starting defensive line after leading the Pac-12 in rushing defense (100.3 ypg). The Utes also ranked in the top 20 nationally in total defense (315.6 ypg) and scoring defense (19.4 ppg). On offense, Utah returns top playmakers Tyler Huntley, Zack Moss, and Britain Covey. Huntley and Moss were injured and did not play against BYU last season. Their presence will give the Utes added teeth on offense this fall.
1. Sept. 21 vs. Washington
When a team must replace 13 starters — including nine on defense — heading into a season, it's natural to assume this team will take a step back. Making such an assumption with Washington isn't a smart thing to do. Chris Petersen is one of the best college football coaches in the country and he has more than enough talent in place to keep the defending Pac-12 champions at a high level.
Junior quarterback Jacob Eason started as a freshman at Georgia before transferring. Eason has an experienced offensive line in front of him and will have no trouble picking up where Jake Browning left off. If the defense can maintain the level that helped the Huskies lead the Pac-12 in scoring defense (16.4 ppg) and total defense (306.2 ypg), BYU faces long odds for springing an early-season upset.
— 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.