Provo • It’s not over until it’s over. Or in this case, the season isn’t set until it’s set.
And at this point, BYU’s 2020 season may not be completely set.
While the Cougars are a day away from starting the season, it will have to be fluid — as everything has been through the pandemic. When BYU announced the addition of two more home games less than two weeks ago, bringing the season total to eight games, the school said additional games would be announced “as they are finalized.”
So, could the Cougars play a 10- or 12-game season?
Technically, yes. But there are still a lot of variables as schools have gotten back underway and college football gets started. It could be possible BYU is holding on to open dates in the later half of the season for teams that lose games earlier due to COVID-19.
The Cougars are no longer opening with four consecutive Power Five opponents (or playing the total of six P5 schools they had originally planned). The original 2020 schedule — including Utah, Michigan State, Arizona State, Minnesota, Missouri and Stanford — took athletic director Tom Holmoe years go put together and was the toughest slate of BYU’s independent era, when you threw in upper-tier Mountain West foes Utah State, Boise State and San Diego State.
Holmoe was still able to cobble together an eight-game schedule, though, and what was once a thoroughly stacked deck has evolved into a slate that could produce a lot of wins.
The season is still starting with some difficulty — road games at Navy (Sept. 7) and Army (Sept. 19) — before returning home.
Navy finished the 2019 season with an 11-2 record, while Army posted a 5-8 record. Both present the biggest obstacle in years to BYU, playing a tricky option offense. But if the Cougars can pull out at least one win from the first two games, they will be in a good position for the remainder of the schedule.
“We know exactly what Navy brings to the table,” BYU coach Kalani Sitake said. “They’re a dangerous team and I have to keep reminding everyone that they finished ranked last year and won a lot of games. They’re an efficient team. … We’re going to have to play to [our strengths] in order to compete against a really quality team that’s, in my mind, a ranked team.”
THE COUGARS WILL SUCCEED IF ...
The team will have to stay healthy. Last year, the Cougars’ main biggest setbacks came from injuries — they were forced to test their depth at multiple positions. The 2020 season has yet to start and BYU has already lost one of their key offensive players to a season-ending injury. But a healthy Zach Wilson at QB bodes well.
THE COUGARS WON’T SUCCEED IF ...
Two areas of concern last season surface again — red zone scoring and stopping the run. Last season, BYU improved on getting to the red zone, but struggled to score once in the end zone, while the defense struggled to get key stops when the Cougars had fourth quarter leads, leading to more losses.
BOTTOM LINE ...
The Cougars have no reason to not put up a winning season this year, assuming they don’t completely go off the rails. The 2020 schedule, as currently composed, is filled with winnable games. But BYU cannot afford to take anything for granted. The pandemic has made everything unpredictable.
When BYU travels to West Point later in September, it’ll be the first time ever the Cougars and Black Knights face off. In fact, of the eight opponents on the schedule, BYU has only played against Navy and Houston before (twice each).
Besides Army, BYU will see Troy, University of Texas at San Antonio, Texas State, Western Kentucky and North Alabama for the first time.
Even though BYU is entering its 10th season of independence, opponents, more often than not, tend to have a history with the Cougars, like in-state rivals Utah and Utah State, and former Mountain West foe Boise State. It could prove tricky to go up against so many unknowns.
But the Cougars will continue to adapt, like they’ve been doing, as the season plays out.
The defense is has focused on defending the triple option it will see at Navy and Army, but will then go back to its usual look for the remainder of the season.
Throughout much of fall camp, coaches said the defense was behind the offense, but the group improved measurably by the final week of camp. The staff now believe it was Cougar offense’s strength, not necessarily defensive shortcomings, that accounted for the early lopsided outings.
The Cougars are looking to senior defensive tackle Khyiris Tonga to anchor the front. The linebackers, led by senior Isaiah Kaufusi, have a new look — and new names — as coaches will look to use them in hybrid roles.
In the secondary, both Troy Warner and Zayne Anderson are coming off injuries, but are healthy now and ready to close out their collegiate careers with big performances.
As far as the offense is concerned, BYU OC Jeff Grimes said he expects the Cougars to be versatile on the attack.
The BYU passing game could be poised for a breakout season with quarterback Zach Wilson now, finally, fully healthy. Last year, Wilson had surgery on his right shoulder and sat out most of the offseason, coming back in time for fall camp. During the 2019 season, Wilson continued to be plagued by injury as he suffered a fractured right thumb midway through the season.
Wide receiver Dax Milne said he’s notices a slight change in Wilson this year.
“He’s always been a confident guy, but last year, especially toward the beginning of the season last year, he was a little hesitant on airing it out all the time and didn’t want to throw out his shoulder,” Milne said. “But now, it’s like nothing’s holding him back. He’s ready to make any sort of throw that he needs to, given the play, and he’s going to do great this season.”
Wilson will be supported by what should be the best offensive line in the Sitake era. The line, led by NFL prospects Brady Christensen and James Empey, is amongst the biggest in college football, all 6-foot-4 or taller and bigger than 300 lbs.
“There may be games where we throw it more than we run it, some we may run it a little bit more — it just depends on what’s clicking that day and what the defense allows for you to do,” Grimes said. “Regardless, I think it’s important for us to be able to do both.”
The kicking game should be in good hands. Redshirt sophomore Jake Oldroyd won the kicking battle and freshman Ryan Rehkow will punt. And Sitake has confidence in both of them to get the job done.
“I think Rico’s got a strong leg — he’s strong, big, tall, athletic, strong leg,” “For us, it’s being able to flip the field for us out on the punt part of things, and I think he can give us that. We know Jake already. From what I’ve seen a lot of consistency. And then what we’re getting from the holder and the snaps, I think that will help us try to find our groove when it comes to place kicking as well.”
BYU’S 2020 SCHEDULE*
All times MDT
Monday • At Navy, 6 p.m. ESPN
Sept. 13 • At Army, 1:30 p.m. CBS
Sept. 26 • Troy, 8:15 p.m. ESPN
Oct. 10 • UTSA, TBD, TBD
Oct. 16 • At Houston, 7:30 p.m., ESPN2
Oct. 24 • Texas State, TBD, TBD
Oct. 31 • Western Kentucky, TBD, TBD
Nov. 21 • North Alabama, TBD, TBD
* Additional games may be scheduled