Tanner Mangum and the Cougars have a difficult six-game stretch early in the season
Coming off of a 9-4 season in Kalani Sitake’s first full year as the head coach, the BYU football program is excited about what lies ahead with Sitake in charge.
Sitake, who grew up a fan of BYU as a kid and eventually played for the late LaVell Edwards, has always had a passion for Cougar football and he’s working to deliver BYU a special season that the fan base craves.
The schedule starts out like it usually does, with one of the toughest September slates in the country. But as is life as an independent not named Notre Dame, the back half of the schedule could leave the Cougars in college football irrelevance if they don’t win big in the month of September.
Let’s take a look at the Cougars’ 2017 opponents and how they rank from easiest to the most difficult.
13. Nov. 18 vs. UMass
Like BYU, the Minutemen are trudging along as an FBS Independent. Last season, the Cougars rocked UMass 51-9 in a game that saw BYU’s starting defensive end fill in at running back. Expect more of the same when the Minutemen travel to the Wasatch front again this November.
12. Aug. 26 vs. Portland State
It’s not often that an FBS vs. FCS game is aired on the mothership, ESPN. This one will be with it taking place in “week zero,” one week before the rest of the country gets started. The Vikings won only three games last year, but they’ve been known to be a program that pulls the occasional upset over an FBS school. Just ask Washington State two years ago.
11. Oct. 28 vs. San Jose State
New Spartans head coach Brent Brennan will face an old friend in Kalani Sitake when the two teams face off in October. Brennan and Sitake coached together at Oregon State in 2014 and the two coaches lived in the same neighborhood.
10. Nov. 4 at Fresno State
The Carr brothers are not coming through that door for the Bulldogs. It sure feels like it has been a long time since the “Anyone, Anytime, Anyplace” days in the Valley. New head coach Jeff Tedford will try to use his quarterback-developing magic on sophomore Chason Virgil as Fresno State hosts old WAC rival BYU for the first time since 1998.
9. Oct. 21 at East Carolina
East Carolina is in its third year as a member of the American Athletic Conference, and the Pirates are averaging only five wins a season. Last season’s 3-9 record was the worst that ECU has seen in decades and it came in Scottie Montgomery’s first year as head coach. The Pirates were ranked 100th or worse in the FBS in three (total, scoring, rushing) of the four major defensive categories.
8. Nov. 10 (Friday) at UNLV
Whenever BYU travels down to Las Vegas to take on the Rebels, it’s a hot ticket because there are so many Cougar fans in the Southern Nevada area. BYU also has experienced a ton of success in Vegas whether it includes bowl games or an undefeated record versus the Rebs in Sam Boyd Stadium.
7. Sept. 29 (Friday) at Utah State
The Aggies haven’t been competitive with BYU the past two seasons. This is a make-or-break season for head coach Matt Wells and a win over BYU in Logan would do wonders for his job security. Utah State has a nice QB-WR tandem returning in Kent Myers and Zach Van Leeuwen.
6. Nov. 25 at Hawaii
The Rainbow Warriors return 13 starters from a team that surprised everyone with a 7-7 record and a bowl victory in head coach Nick Rolovich’s first season. Hawaii fans live for hosting BYU and the rivalry still means a lot to the older Warrior fans, and Rolovich knows that as well as anyone. Rolovich became a Hawaii legend in his playing days after he led the Warriors to a 72-45 victory over a BYU team in 2001 that entered that game 12-0.
5. Oct. 6 vs. Boise State
The BYU-Boise State series has been one of the best games annually each year out west, with the home team holding serve each time since the rivalry kicked into high gear in 2012. Last season, BYU forced five turnovers but still came up short in a 27-28 loss on the Smurf Turf.
4. Oct. 14 at Mississippi State
Last season, BYU defeated the Bulldogs in overtime in Provo. Now Mississippi State will be looking for payback in Stark Vegas led by quarterback Nick Fitzgerald, who might be the SEC’s best quarterback in 2017. The Bulldogs’ defense was the most physical group BYU faced a season ago.
3. Sept. 16 vs. Wisconsin
The Badgers are the defending Cotton Bowl champs and their only losses a year ago came against Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State in the Big Ten Championship Game. BYU has always wanted to schedule more teams from the Big Ten, so to get a Wisconsin team that might be in the top 10 when it arrives in Provo is a big feather in the Cougars’ independence cap.
2. Sept. 9 vs. Utah
BYU has lost six in a row in this nasty rivalry that dates back to 1922. Last season, BYU opted to go for two down only one in the final seconds of regulation before Taysom Hill was ultimately stuffed at the line of scrimmage. This game always lives up to the hype, but the Cougars can’t settle for moral victories, they have to win if they want to try and establish themselves as the premier program in the Beehive State once again.
1. Sept. 2 vs. LSU (Houston)
Since BYU faced No. 1 Miami in 1990, the Cougars haven’t seen many programs with the type of talent that LSU will have on its roster when the two clash in NRG Stadium, home of the NFL’s Houston Texans. The Tigers lost running back Leonard Fournette among several other NFL draft picks, have arguably the nation’s best back returning in Derrius Guice. This is a huge tone-setter for LSU head coach Ed Orgeron to prove why he is the right man for the job. The Cougars will have a tall order in front of them against the Tigers.
— 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.