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BYU Cougars: Breaking down the 2021 football season

With a backloaded schedule, the Cougars need to find their stride early.

(Photo courtesy of Jaren Wilkey | BYU Athletics) Tristen Hoge (69) at the Boca Raton Bowl, Dec. 22, 2020.

Through BYU’s independence era, the Cougars have managed to pull together schedules that compare to almost any Power Five program. This season is no different — although it is the toughest schedule yet — but it will allow the Cougars to finally answer the question that came to everyone’s mind last year: Is BYU a contender?

Last season, BYU pulled off a historic season, 11-1, but did it against a watered-down schedule. Can the Cougars replicate the magic this year when they face seven Power Five programs and three Group of Five teams?

Here’s The Tribune’s early season preview:

Easiest game

Idaho State.

While BYU first played Idaho State in 1932, the teams have met only six times before this fall. Yet, the Cougars have won all of the matches against the Bengals.

Most recently, BYU routed Idaho State 42-10 in 2019. The Cougars, led by then-starter Zach Wilson, put up 204 rushing yards and 245 passing yards. It was Sione Finau’s first 100-yard rushing game and last game of the season as the running back suffered a season-ending ACL injury.

Wilson may be gone, but Finau, along with plenty of other rushers and receivers who played in the game two years ago, are back and ready to put up big numbers again.

Toughest game

Utah.

The Utes may not have had the best season last year, but most of that can be attributed to the pandemic. Utah has 19 returning starters and has taken advantage of the transfer portal. As far as analyst Phil Steele is concerned, the Utes are a top 15 team heading into the 2021 season.

This game will have an added layer of emotional difficulty as the Cougars are hoping to beat the Utes for the first time in more than a decade. The last time BYU won the rivalry game was in 2009 when the Cougars upset the then-No. 21 Utah, 26-23, in LaVell Edwards Stadium.

Key stretch

The first few games will set the tone for the season, as it’s been known to happen in recent years. The Cougars will open the 2021 season with three consecutive Power Five games, followed by three big contenders from Group of Five schools. If that weren’t enough, BYU will then have three more consecutive P5 opponents.

So, really, the first two-thirds of the season will be pretty tough. The Cougars also won’t have a bye week until November, so staying healthy during that period will be key.

Potential upset

Arizona State.

Arizona is in a rebuilding phase after having the worst season in recent history, and Washington State and Virginia may not be as tough as they seem. So, there are only four P5 opponents left. Most of the remaining programs may prove to be too tall of an order.

Steele also included the Sun Devils in his preseason Top 25, putting them at No. 21. Of the opponents that are ranked in the preseason, BYU may have the best shot at defeating Arizona State, but will have to play a clean game and not let turnovers or penalties dictate the game.

Record prediction

8-4, maybe 9-3. But that’s a big maybe.

Let’s be honest, the Cougars are facing seven Power Five programs. They are bound to lose at least a couple of those as BYU is back to a heavily loaded schedule.

2021 Schedule

Sept. 4 Arizona, at Las Vegas

Sept. 11 Utah

Sept. 18 Arizona State

Sept. 25 South Florida

Oct. 1 at Utah State

Oct. 9 Boise State

Oct. 16 at Baylor

Oct. 23 at Washington State

Oct. 30 Virginia

Nov. 6 Idaho State

Nov. 13 BYE WEEK

Nov. 20 at Georgia Southern

Nov. 27 at USC

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