This season marks the fifth for BYU as a football independent. When the Cougars declared their independence back in 2010, one of the major concerns was scheduling. Everyone in the college football world was wondering how on earth would a team not named Notre Dame, put out a schedule with 12 games that warrants respect nationally?
It was a big concern; one that even BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe had his trepidations about when the Cougars went rogue from the conference establishment.
Now in year five, Holmoe and the Cougars are hitting their stride when it comes to scheduling. This season boasts one of the toughest September slates in the country, and the schedule is sprinkled in with some of the best programs the Group of Five has to offer.
The 2015 slate is what many around BYU’s program feel will become the norm in regards to scheduling. You could argue that the 2016 schedule is even tougher.
Despite all the positive momentum, scheduling continues to become an ongoing battle for BYU, as the school knows it doesn’t have much leverage when it comes to brokering games, or getting return trips back to Provo, Utah. The only thing BYU can control at this point is winning the games it schedules. If BYU wins with this schedule, the nation will be buzzing and respected programs around the country might reconsider the risk of playing a game in Provo.
Here’s a break down of the 12 teams on BYU’s regular season schedule, ranked from easiest to most difficult.
12. Oct. 24 vs. Wagner
Yes, it’s never fun to see FBS programs face FCS opponents. But BYU is indebted to Wagner for helping make the Missouri game in Kansas City this season a reality. It took three programs to readjust their 2015 schedules to get BYU and Missouri on this year’s slate, and Wagner was one of those schools. The others were UNLV and Idaho State, who were originally supposed to be on BYU’s schedule this season.
So the Cougars dropped UNLV and Idaho State for Missouri and Wagner. I think BYU fans would take that anytime. The Missouri game shows the behind-the-scenes work that it sometimes takes for a series to happen, and also the power of BYU’s relationship with ESPN.
11. Oct. 2 (Friday) vs. UConn
BYU defeated the Huskies 35-10 in Storrs to open the 2014 season. UConn won two games last season, and one of those came in a dogfight against FCS school Stony Brook.
Have to think there are going to be some more growing pains in the second year of the Bob Diaco era. North Carolina State transfer Bryant Shirreffs might inject life at the quarterback position, where there’s been a revolving door since Dan Orlovsky was slinging it around in the Big East days for the Huskies.
The Huskies averaged only 21 points per game last season, they won’t be able to hang with BYU’s explosive offense in their first-ever trip to Provo.
10. Nov. 21 vs. Fresno State
An old WAC rivalry renews on senior night in Provo. BYU hasn’t squared off against the Bulldogs since the 1998 season. Fresno State leads the all-time series 5-4.
The Bulldogs somehow reached the Mountain West Championship Game last season, the second consecutive appearance for the program; but this year they return only 11 starters. Marteze Waller is one of the better running backs BYU will face this season. Waller racked up 1,368 yards in 2014. With how inexperienced the Bulldogs are this season; some on the Valley are going to be wondering when the next member of the Carr family is going to appear at quarterback.
9. Nov. 6 (Friday) at San Jose State
The last time BYU travelled to San Jose in 2012, the Cougars left Spartan Stadium with a loss. The Cougars will look to get revenge on the Spartans in a game that will be the latest kickoff in program history on the mainland. If that isn’t a unique stat for you, well, I just don’t know what it is.
San Jose State went 3-9 last season and enters year three under Ron Caragher. The Spartans should have an exciting offense with 10 starters returning, and one of the best wide receiver units in the Mountain West despite losing three-star Kanya Bell who was expected to be an instant difference maker for SJSU.
8. Oct. 10 vs. East Carolina
The American Athletic Conference and BYU have had a strong and healthy relationship since the Cougars went independent. AAC commissioner Mike Aresco has even stated in the past that his league and BYU have a “quasi-alliance” in regards to scheduling, as both parties benefit from these games. The AAC needs to bolster its non-conference slate, and BYU wants to schedule games around the country for its nationwide fanbase and piece together games that’ll be nice for its ESPN contract. ECU and BYU could fit the bill nicely for TV.
The Pirates are one of the better Group of Five teams despite losing NCAA all-time receptions leader Justin Hardy to graduation. The Pirates have an identity of being a good offense under Ruffin McNeill, I’d expect nothing less in the Pirates’ first-ever against BYU.
7. Nov. 28 at Utah State
The Battle for the Old Wagon Wheel should have both Taysom Hill and Chuckie Keeton on high alert. Why? Both QBs have suffered season-ending injuries in BYU-USU matchups the past three seasons.
These old rivals will be squaring off against each other for the 85th time. The Aggies defeated BYU last season when the Cougars were ranked No. 18 nationally, sending BYU into a tailspin that turned into a four-game losing streak. Usually this game is played on the first Friday in October to accommodate LDS General Conference in the area, but this year it gets moved to after Thanksgiving for an end of the year showdown. For both schools, they are excited to have a rivalry matchup to cap off the season.
6. Sept. 26 at Michigan
This is BYU’s second meeting all-time against the Maize and Blue. The other game came in the 1984 Holiday Bowl, which led to BYU winning the school’s one and only national championship.
One of the players roaming the Michigan sidelines was none other than Jim Harbaugh, have you heard of him? Yeah, I thought so. The Harbaugh era starts with much anticipation, but do the Wolverines have the talent to keep pace in the difficult Big Ten East? Definitely not this year, although eventually Harbaugh will turn it around. But will he stay long enough at his alma mater before another NFL job comes calling?
Of the teams BYU is facing in the month of September (Nebraska, Boise State, UCLA), Michigan appears to be the best chance for BYU to pull off a victory.
5. Oct. 16 (Friday) vs. Cincinnati
The Bearcats are one of the preseason favorites to land in the Group of Five automatic New Year’s Six spot, and the biggest reason is because of junior quarterback Gunner Kiel, one of the best in the country.
Kiel threw for 3,254 yards a year ago, if he puts up bigger numbers this season he could become a Heisman contender, which was what everyone said he would be when he signed to attend Notre Dame as the nation’s No. 1 recruit out of high school.
Last year, Cincinnati won nine games and I’d expect them to outdo that in year three under Tommy Tuberville. Sliverberry Mouhon is one of the better defensive ends in the AAC, but he also is the lone returning starter along the Bearcats’ D-line.
4. Sept. 5 at Nebraska
BYU and Nebraska is a juicy opening week matchup that will have a national ABC audience to help showcase it. This will mark the first time that these two schools have squared off against each other.
I could see Nebraska winning by two touchdowns, but I could also see BYU winning by a similar margin. This game could go a multitude of ways, and I think that’s what adds to the intrigue.
Bronco Mendenhall and Mike Riley are close friends in the coaching profession, and they’ve squared off against each other three times with Mendenhall winning two of those contests. Riley inherits a talented Huskers team that will have high expectations, as is the norm in Lincoln. But can Riley deliver and get the Huskers to the top of the Big Ten mountain? The BYU game will be a tone-setter for Riley.
3. Sept. 12 vs. Boise State
After one year, the Broncos are riding high under Bryan Harsin, and for good reason. The Broncos, who won the Fiesta Bowl last season, will be better in 2015, despite losing RB Jay Ajayi and QB Grant Hedrick.
The Broncos lead the all-time series against BYU 4-1, including last year’s game on the blue turf , which Boise dominated 55-30. And it actually wasn’t as close as the score would indicate. This game is critical for BYU if it hopes to have a successful season. If the Cougars can’t defeat Boise at home, it’s hard to imagine them escaping September with more than two wins.
2. Nov. 14 vs. Missouri (in Kansas City)
The two-time defending SEC East champions are not a program to sleep on anymore. The Tigers are a legitimate force in college football, and they have an identity of nasty defenses. This is the first meeting between the two schools since the 1983 Holiday Bowl, which BYU won due to Steve Young’s late heroics. This is the first of a two-game series that will have the Tigers making a November 2020 visit to Provo.
Missouri returns 12 starters from last season and a majority of those are the big hogmollies up front protecting two-year starting quarterback Maty Mauk.
A lot of BYU’s chances in this game will rest on the health of Taysom Hill. If he is healthy, BYU could potentially pull off an upset here, but the Cougars aren’t used to facing a front seven as physical as what the Tigers put out on a yearly basis.
Either way, BYU fans are thrilled to see more quality opponents filling up the November schedules.
1. Sept. 19 at UCLA
Jim Mora continues to do a terrific job in Westwood. Entering year four, Mora already has 29 wins under him, and he has his best team yet in 2015.
The Bruins return 18 starters, 10 on the offensive side of the ball. The one position that doesn’t have a starter returning is the quarterback spot. Brett Hundley was a three-year starter for the Bruins, but do-it-all freshman Josh Rosen comes in with lofty expectations, as lofty as some saying he’s the best QB prospect to arrive at UCLA since Troy Aikman.
UCLA is a classic example of a team that BYU historically struggles against, talented offensive and defensive lines, and the Bruins are better than BYU at every position except QB. If BYU were to win in Pasadena, it would mark the first time the Cougars have won in the Rose Bowl since 1983 when Steve Young was the QB. They’ve lost their last three appearances in the historic venue since.
— Written by Mitch Harper, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Harper is the BYU reporter and insider for 1320 KFAN and co-host of "The Cougar Center" podcast. Follow him on Twitter @Mitch_Harper.