TSS Top 50: No. 33 BYU Cougars

BYU Cougars
2015 Record: 9-4 (lost 35-28 to Utah in Las Vegas Bowl)

1 Burning Question: Is a New Years’ Six Bowl in Reach?

Is this too much to hope for? It depends on the type of BYU fan involved. Some think that the pipe dream of a New Years’ Six bowl is too much right now, while others think that the goal should be a spot in the College Football Playoff and nothing less.

So what should the reasonable expectation be?

BYU returns 15 starters, including star quarterbacks Taysom Hill and Tanner Mangum, who spent the entire 2015 season replacing an injured Hill (more on them later).

The long and short of the BYU season, at least over a month before it starts, should be simple. The Cougars have a talented, veteran team, along with a very tough schedule that should impress the CFP Selection Committee. Going 10-2 against that slate will be difficult, but if the Cougars can pull that off, then an NY6 bowl is a legitimate possibility.

That should be the goal coming into the season.

2 Key Stats to Pay Attention to

50 – The number of plays that BYU ran in 2015 before Taysom Hill broke his ankle. That’s it. 50. And that includes defensive plays. Hill is a strong passer and tremendous runner who has had absolutely horrible luck with injuries. Although Hill probably would not have made any difference in the game against Michigan, BYU’s tight losses (UCLA and Missouri) could have gone very differently had he been in the lineup. Although it’s far too late to wonder “what if”, we do know the Cougar offense will be even better in 2016 if Hill can stay healthy.

740 – The number of rushing yards that BYU gave up in its three regular season losses last year. That’s an average of just under 250 yards per game. And, when you factor in the fact that Missouri only ran for 190 yards in an ugly offensive game in November, the remaining numbers are staggering. UCLA ran for 296 yards and Michigan put up 254. If BYU wants to avoid losing games this year, then the Cougars need their defensive line to stay strong against the run.

3 Key Games that will Make or Break the Season

Saturday, September 10th, at Utah
Record in Last 5 Meetings: 0-5
Last Year’s Result: L, 35-28 (Las Vegas Bowl)

Why it Matters: It’s the Holy War and that makes it important enough. BYU’s first tough game will probably be the opener against Arizona, but this contest will be far more important. Sure, a season-opening loss against Arizona might put NY6 dreams on the back burner but any Cougar fan will gladly trade that for a win over Utah. After all, BYU has struggled in the series recently, and is still feeling spurned about Utah taking a two-year hiatus from the rivalry. Even though it’s only the second game, it’s the most important contest on the schedule.

Saturday, October 8th, at Michigan State
Record in Last 5 Meetings: No previous meetings

Why it Matters: BYU’s schedule is very front-loaded, as it plays six Power 5 opponents in the first seven games of the season. By the time they reach this game, the Cougars will probably be out of the College Football Playoff picture. But, as long as BYU goes 3-2 in its first five games, this contest is extremely important. A victory against Michigan State would give the Cougars a marquee win over a ranked opponent, which is something the CFP Selection Committee will factor in as it determines the all-important rankings at the end of the season. A “W” over a team as highly regarded as the Spartans might be just enough to separate the Cougars from the rest of the other teams competing for a coveted NY6 bowl bid.

 

Thursday, October 20th, at Boise State
Record in Last 5 Meetings: 2-3
Last Year’s Result: L, 35-24

Why it Matters: BYU’s final four games of the season will not be too difficult. Cincinnati might be a test, but the Cougars get to close out the year with three relatively easy games. If BYU comes into this contest in contention for an NY6 spot, this will be the final opportunity to make a statement. Should Boise State return to form this year, it will likely be in contention for the Group of 5’s automatic berth. A Cougar victory over a team that’s also in the mix for a NY6 bid would be an impressive feather in BYU’s cap.

4 Key Players

When Taysom Hill ran over, around, under, and through Texas's defense last year, Mack Brown's job security at Texas began to be undercut to a significant degree.  Now, Charlie Strong gets a chance to "take that Hill" and show Burnt Orange Nation just how capable he is as a coach and a defensive tactitian.

Taysom Hill, QB — Hill is the best quarterback that BYU has seen in a long time. He is an amazing runner (though two straight years of season-ending injuries may curb the desire to do that too much) and a very good passer. He is elusive in the backfield and explosive in the open field. He can carry this offense all by himself, if absolutely need be. He is one of the best game-changing quarterbacks in college football right now and we cannot underestimate him. His sixth year of eligibility is a final chance for him to cement what was expected to be an all-time great legacy at BYU.

Tanner Mangum, QB — Hopefully, Mangum’s skills will not be needed. He is nowhere near as mobile as Hill but has a stronger and more accurate arm. Having him on the bench means that BYU will be able to confidently rest Hill if necessary, and that the Cougars have a very capable backup if Hill suffers another injury. Also, it has to be noted that new coach Kalani Sitake did not yet choose a starter on his post-spring depth chart. Conventional wisdom says that it will be Hill, assuming he is fully-healed and up to his full strength, but anything can happen in the fall.

Kalani Sitake, Head Coach — Speaking of Sitake, he is making his way into an unenviable position. Bronco Mendenhall left after a very successful decade of being underappreciated as the coach of BYU. Sitake has no head coaching experience, but he inherits a talented and experienced team to work with. Maybe everything else BYU prepares for this season can be for naught if Sitake is an underwhelming coach, but that seems very unlikely. This will be a huge test for a first-time head coach, and the difference for BYU between 10-2 or 6-6 could fall on the shoulders of the new head coach.

Sae Tautu, DL — This could have been a pick ’em, but the point is that the defensive line needs an anchor. BYU’s line was abused last year in some of its games against strong P5 teams; letting that happen again will be a bad formula for the Cougars. Among returning linemen, Tautu had the most sacks and tackles for loss. He may not turn into the anchor on the defensive line by the end of the year, but someone has to step up.

5 Bold Predictions

5. BYU will be ranked at some point this season.

Teams outside of Power 5 conferences have trouble earning a ranking for close losses, so BYU will need wins to get national respect. The Cougars will earn a win over Arizona to start, which will put them on the map. Once they are on the map, though, it’s all about staying there. Starting 2-0 with a win over Utah will put BYU in the Top 25. If the Cougars lose that, though, then a win over UCLA and 2-1 against Pac 12 teams will be enough to get BYU national attention.

4. BYU will upset Michigan State.

I don’t know how many games the Cougars will win before that because the opening schedule is tough, to say the least. BYU matches up pretty well against the Spartans, and Michigan State is young and ripe for upsets in 2016. Maybe the Spartans will drop a game or two earlier in the year and this game will be less high-profile, but it’s hard to imagine a scenario where BYU is the team with less to gain from this game.

3. BYU will play two quarterbacks this season.

This prediction isn’t particularly bold, but I can’t imagine BYU not starting Taysom Hill. I also can’t imagine not using Tanner Mangum when the situation calls for it. Whether it’s because of injury scrapes or to beat teams with a stronger run defense (Mangum is much better-suited to face Michigan State’s defense, for example), there will be situations that call for alternating quarterbacks. Many coaches are very hesitant to do so, but it would be foolish for Sitake to not consider it at the very least.

2. BYU will face five ranked teams this year.

This one is a stretch, mostly because Utah probably won’t sneak into the rankings by Week 2. UCLA, Michigan State, and Boise State are relative shoe-ins (should such a thing exist) to be ranked. Utah is a talented team coming off a successful season, though, so the Utes could be ranked early in the season. Also, Mississippi State’s schedule is pretty backloaded, so the Bulldogs could easily be 4-1 when they visit Provo. And we all know that 4-1 SEC teams get ranked, no matter how bad the teams they beat are. In addition, Cincinnati’s schedule isn’t that strong, so the Bearcats could have an inflated record by the time the two teams meet.

1. BYU will make an NY6 Bowl.

Yes, this is a bold prediction. But, it has a decent (I’ll peg it at 25% or so) of actually happening. 10-2 has a reasonable chance of actually happening, but it will be tough with those first two months of the schedule. The schedule is good enough that 12-0 would put BYU in Playoff contention, but that’s probably way too far of a stretch. Still, going 3-2 against Utah, UCLA, West Virginia, Michigan State, and Boise State means that going 7-0 in games BYU is favored in is all that’s necessary. Now, that’s not easy to do at all, especially because Arizona, Mississippi State, Cincinnati, and maybe even Toledo are pretty solid teams. But, if BYU can go 4-1 in its five toughest games, which is not all that crazy (especially if Michigan State is having a down year), then 10-2 can be within reasonable reach.

About Yesh Ginsburg

Yesh has been a fan and student of college football since before he can remember. He spent years mastering the intricacies of the BCS and now keeps an eye on the national picture as teams jockey for College Football Playoff positioning.

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