Kalani Sitake's Cougars face an uncertain season
BYU is a model of inconsistency over the past two seasons under head coach Kalani Sitake. The Cougars have alternated victories over the likes of Wisconsin, USC, Tennessee, and Boise State with head-scratching losses to the likes of USF and Toledo. Sitake is feeling pressure to take a step forward entering his fifth season.
It won't be easy getting over that seven-win plateau in 2020. BYU has six Power 5 opponents on the schedule along with two of the top Mountain West teams. The Cougars face brutal road games against Minnesota, Utah, Arizona State, and Boise State – with the first three coming in September. Avoiding another slow start may not be possible, especially with offseason practices and conditioning limited by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Here is a breakdown of BYU's 2020 schedule ranked from the easiest game to the toughest:
]Editor's note: Schedule subject to change. The Big Ten's and Pac-12's decisions to go with conference-only schedules have drastically impacted BYU. As a result, the Cougars' games against Utah (Sept. 3), Michigan State (Sept. 12), Arizona State (Sept. 19), Minnesota (Sept. 26), and Stanford (Nov. 28) have been canceled. How BYU will fill these dates remains to be seen. Below is the remaining opponents ranked from easiest to toughest.]
7. Nov. 21 vs. North Alabama
The Lions embark on their debut FCS season by tackling a pair of FBS opponents in Virginia Tech and BYU. It's a safe bet Senior Night will stay upset-free for the Cougars. North Alabama is only two years removed from the NCAA Division II ranks and will have a tough time matching BYU's talent and depth.
6. Oct. 24 vs. Northern Illinois (in Bridgeview, Ill.)
BYU staggered to a 7-6 loss when these two teams faced off in Provo two seasons ago. The Huskies will not be as formidable in the rematch. An inexperienced secondary, where no player has a career start, will make it tough for Northern Illinois to stop the Cougars' aerial attack. The Huskies also need to find a way to get more mileage out of an offense that averaged 22.8 points and 358.7 yards per game a year ago.
5. Oct. 16 vs. Houston
These two teams combined for an entertaining home-and-home series when Taysom Hill still quarterbacked BYU. It could be fun again if Houston can get the Air Raid going under Dana Holgorsen. Things didn't work out well during last year's 4-8 campaign after injuries ravaged the offensive line and defense. The good news for the Cougars is they return 16 starters and have several transfers who can help the defense. Houston also has a dangerous receiver in Marquez Stevenson who can give Clayton Tune a consistent playmaking target. Stevenson tallied 907 yards and nine touchdowns on 52 catches last season.
4. Oct. 2 vs. Utah State
Life without Jordan Love could be rough for the Aggies. Love declared for the 2020 NFL Draft after his junior season and was selected by the Green Bay Packers in the first round. Expected replacement Henry Colombi has an experienced offensive line and some quality playmakers like Jaylen Warren and Jordan Nathan around him. It might not matter if an inexperienced defense can't stay healthy. Injuries riddled Utah State on defense last season and the Aggies ranked an uncharacteristic ninth in total defense in the Mountain West as a result, giving up 440.5 yards per game.
3. Nov. 14 vs. San Diego State
Brady Hoke returns for a second stint as head coach of the Aztecs and inherits a team that couldn't be more polar opposite on both sides of the ball. Seven starters return from a defense that ranked second nationally in rushing yards (75.4 ypg) and points allowed (12.7 ppg). On offense, the Aztecs have nowhere to go but up after averaging 21.2 points and 343.2 yards – ranking last in the Mountain West in both categories. San Diego State will give BYU a tough test after holding the Cougars to just a field goal when the teams met last season.
2. Oct. 10 vs. Missouri
The Tigers went into freefall last season, losing five straight games following a 5-1 start. New head coach Eliah Drinkwitz will lean on running back Larry Rountree III to lead an inexperienced offense. Rountree has rushed for at least 700 yards each of the last three seasons. An experienced defensive line should help Missouri's defense remain stout while the Tigers try to elevate the offense. The Tigers ranked in the Top 20 nationally in scoring, passing, and total defense last season.
1. Nov. 6 at Boise State
BYU still has never beaten the Broncos on the Smurf Turf. The Cougars sprang a 28-25 upset victory in Provo last season that eventually prevented Boise State from earning a New Year's Six Bowl bid. The Broncos are well-positioned to exact revenge. Their top two rushers, George Holani and Robert Mahone, are both back. Hank Bachmeier will take the reins at quarterback again after an injury-marred freshman season. Bachmeier threw for 1,879 yards and nine touchdowns in his debut season. BYU's odds of getting the school's first-ever road win against Boise State aren't great if he can stay healthy.
— 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.