The 2016 season marks the sixth year of football independence for BYU. Life as an independent has posed a fair number of challenges for the Cougars, but BYU has made the most of its unique path thus far.
BYU would love if that path eventually led to membership in a Power Five conference (looking at you Big 12), but that hasn’t happened, and who knows if it ever will.
If you’re not in a Power Five conference, the next best thing for a program is to not be lumped in with the Group of Five. That’s one thing BYU has going for it in 2016, as no one around the country will mistake BYU’s independent status on the same level as of that as a Group of Five school. The Cougars are once again facing one of the toughest schedules in the country this fall and quite possibly the toughest September schedule in the country.
BYU’s new head coach Kalani Sitake takes over at his alma mater and inherits a program that is a consistent winner, but can Sitake and his staff put BYU over the top and possibly give the Cougars the needed boost from on-field performance to potentially finally nudge them into the ranks of the P5s?
The 2016 schedule poses as many great opportunities as BYU could possibly imagine with a tough slate of matchups. Let’s take a further look at BYU’s schedule ranking those opportunities from the easiest to the toughest.
12. Nov. 12 vs. Southern Utah
This will be the first-ever meeting with in-state Southern Utah. A few members of BYU’s new coaching staff have experience coaching for the T-Birds in Ed Lamb (SUU’s previous head coach), Jernaro Gilford, and even Kalani Sitake had a brief stop in Cedar City early in his career.
11. Nov. 19 vs. UMass
The Minutemen, like BYU, enter a world of independence this year. Unlike BYU, the Minutemen are fighting to stay afloat in the FBS ranks before potentially going back to the FCS. To help out the Minutemen, BYU scheduled a home-and-home with its fellow independent. There was a case to put Southern Utah over the Minutemen for this exercise, but I still gave a slight edge to the FBS team over the FCS squad.
10. Sept. 30 (Friday) vs. Toledo
It’s not often BYU schedules a game against a school from the MAC, and it’s hard to find a program within the MAC that isn’t a detriment to your strength of schedule. However, BYU found a quality program in Toledo that’s coming off a 9-4 season. Head coach Matt Campbell left for Iowa State but the Rockets are still going to be based around their physical offensive line and do-it-all running back Kareem Hunt.
9. Nov. 26 vs. Utah State
The Battle for the Old Wagon Wheel renews in Provo. Since BYU has been an independent, the three games between these teams at LaVell Edwards Stadium have either gone down to the wire or resulted in Utah State pulling off an upset. Last season, BYU closed out the regular season with a dominating win over the Aggies in Logan and this year’s game will yet again get the Thanksgiving weekend treatment.
8. Nov. 5 at Cincinnati
The battle for who gets into the Big 12? BYU travels to Cincinnati for their first game ever in the state of Ohio to play the second of a two-game series with the Bearcats. Last season, BYU needed 21 unanswered points in the fourth quarter to defeat Cincinnati, and that was in a game where the Cougars didn’t face quarterback Gunner Kiel.
Similar to BYU, the Bearcats have a lot of new faces on their coaching staff, but by the time these two teams meet that shouldn’t be an issue. In most years, a game against a program of Cincinnati’s caliber would be higher on a list like this. This just speaks to the depth on BYU’s schedule in 2016.
7. Sept. 3 vs. Arizona (Glendale, Ariz.)
The Kalani Sitake era begins with a difficult game against Arizona from the Pac-12 in Glendale. Arizona quarterback Anu Solomon will be one of the best quarterback’s BYU faces in 2016, but the Cougars match up well personnel-wise against the Wildcats. One thing that’ll be interesting to watch for on game day is the crowd at University of Phoenix Stadium. Naturally you’d think the game being in Arizona would lead to Wildcat fans having a bigger turnout, but BYU fans have purchased more tickets as of now and it’s led to Arizona’s athletic director calling out Wildcat fans to buy more.
6. Oct. 20 (Thursday) at Boise State
BYU and Boise State have produced some entertaining games the last few seasons and it has turned into a great regional matchup between the two programs. Last season, BYU won on a Hail Mary from Tanner Mangum to wide receiver Mitchell Juergens. But that was in Provo. The Cougars have yet to win in Boise and the Broncos look primed and ready to have a bounce-back year after a disappointing 8-5 showing in 2015.
5. Oct. 14 (Friday) vs. Mississippi State
The SEC comes to Provo for the first time since the 2000 season, and the last program from college football’s toughest conference to do that was Mississippi State. The biggest question facing the Bulldogs in 2016 is how do they replace quarterback Dak Prescott? Sophomore Nick Fitzgerald looks to be the favorite heading into fall camp. Along with bringing in a new QB, the Bulldogs are installing a new defense. Mississippi State could finish seventh in the SEC West and still be a top 30 team in the country. There’s enough talent on this roster that the Bulldogs will go bowling yet again but you have to commend them for taking a risk traveling west in their non-conference, which isn’t common in the SEC.
4. Sept. 24 vs. West Virginia (Landover, Md.)
Since Geno Smith left Morgantown, there hasn’t been much to be excited about with West Virginia football. Count on that changing in 2016. Quarterback Skyler Howard has some of the best skill players around him that you’ll find in the Big 12 and the Mountaineers have a favorable schedule with the best teams traveling to Morgantown. If the Mountaineers find a way to get past BYU in FedEx Field (home of the NFL’s Washington Redskins), there’s no reason to think the Mountaineers can’t be 5-0 heading into a home game with TCU on Oct. 22.
3. Sept. 17 vs. UCLA
This will be Kalani Sitake’s first home game as the Cougars’ head coach. This game will mark the first time BYU has hosted a Power Five opponent in Provo since Virginia came to town in September of the 2014 season. It’s been a long time, and UCLA is looked at as a favorite to win the Pac-12 South in 2016. Quarterback Josh Rosen had his worst game as a freshman versus BYU in Pasadena last season as the Cougars let a lead slip away to the Bruins and couldn’t find a third straight week of magic.
2. Sept. 10 at Utah
Seeing Utah second on this list might surprise some folks but it’s warranted. BYU has lost nine of its last 12 against the Utes and is currently on a five-game losing streak to its rival. None of that involved Kalani Sitake roaming BYU’s sidelines, but he will have to hear that conversation in the backdrop. Utah’s defensive line is arguably the best in college football next to Alabama’s. If BYU hopes to win in Salt Lake City, a place it hasn’t won in 10 years, the Cougars will need to take care of the football. In the last 10 meetings, BYU sports an ugly minus-20 turnover differential against the Utes.
1. Oct. 8 at Michigan State
The Spartans have established themselves as one of college football’s premier programs under head coach Mark Dantonio. The Spartans won the Big Ten and went to the College Football Playoff last season and are replacing basically everyone on offense. But the Spartans’ defense will be terrific once again and this unit will carry Michigan State through the early part of the schedule. If this game was played in the first two or three weeks of the season, a case could be made to put the Spartans on upset watch. But by the time this game rolls around in October; expect Michigan State to establish itself as one of the teams to beat in the Big Ten once again.
— Written by Mitch Harper, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Harper is publisher of Rivals' BYU site, CougarNation.com, and also is the BYU reporter and insider for 1320 KFAN and co-host of "The Cougar Center" podcast. Follow him on Twitter @Mitch_Harper.