PROVO — Kalani Sitake’s second campaign as BYU’s head coach should prove challenging and opportunistic because it features three ranked teams in September.
Fortunately for the former Cougar fullback, he has more weapons, especially on offense, to address what should be a potentially dramatic start to his second season as a Division I head coach at his alma mater.
It will be interesting to see if he can find two more points here and there — deficits he lacked a year ago in close losses to Utah (20-19), UCLA (17-14), West Virginia (35-32) and Boise State (28-27).
Can BYU find about 10 more points in 2017?
In fall camp, junior quarterback Tanner Mangum has shown an impressive chemistry with his targets and he now understands what offensive coordinator Ty Detmer wants out of his pro-style offense.
The biggest key to the season, other than Mangum staying healthy, is how well his offensive line can protect him and give him those extra ticks on the clock to make it work. This will be tough against the speed and depth of LSU, Utah, Wisconsin and Mississippi State. Against most other opponents on the schedule, things will be more on par or in BYU’s favor.
Here’s this season’s game-by-game predictions:
Aug. 26 — Portland State in Provo: Tom Holmoe grabbed the Vikings for a tune-up game before taking on a big-time SEC foe. This will provide the right fodder to get mouthpieces broken in. Look for the Cougars to concentrate on their run game and take to the air as needed, holding back some pass patterns for the following week. BYU 48-10. (1-0)
Sept. 2 — LSU in Houston: BYU’s best chance against LSU is to force turnovers from a new Tigers offense and convert quickly. Unfortunately, that’s exactly how the Tigers plan on beating the Cougars, bringing lightning quick pressure and forcing Mangum and his backfield into reacting. BYU’s biggest problem is Tiger running back and Heisman Trophy candidate Derrius Guice, a big-play artist against anybody. LSU has too much depth in Houston humidity. LSU 28, BYU 17. (1-1)
Sept. 9 — Utah in Provo: The Cougars are far more prepared to take advantage of turnovers and convert where they couldn’t do at Rice-Eccles a year ago. Utah’s new offense will need some time to gain rhythm. BYU’s defense has enough quickness to keep Ute QBs off balance, regardless of who takes the reins. BYU 24, Utah 17. (2-1)
Sept. 16 — Wisconsin in Provo: The thing about the Badgers is they excel in trench warfare. Wisconsin linemen simply lock up opponents and neutralize them on both sides of the line. BYU has the firepower, but Wisconsin wins the battle along the line of scrimmage. The Cougars have to carve out a Michigan State-type effort against a Big Ten foe to have a chance. Wisconsin 24, BYU 21. (2-2)
Sept. 29 — Utah State in Logan: Matt Wells will be gunning for the Cougars in Logan but there is no proof his offense can overcome the poor 287 yards managed a year ago. Kent Myers will have big issues with BYU’s front seven and secondary. USU will be feisty on defense, but Mangum has too many weapons to cover. BYU 38, Utah State 14. (3-2)
Oct. 6 — Boise State in Provo: BYU was driving for a win at Boise a year ago without Jamaal Williams, and Taysom Hill simply didn’t have enough productive choices to help him. It should help in Provo that the Broncos don’t have Jeremy McNichols in the backfield and receiver Thomas Sperbeck as a Brett Rypien target. Look for BYU’s defense to get after Rypien and Mangum to air it out. BYU 31, Boise State 24. (4-2)
Oct. 14 — Mississippi State in Starkville: The Cougars have won at Mississippi, deep in SEC territory, but MSU is better than that Ole Miss team that Kyle Van Noy terrorized. MSU has only one returning O-line starter but reloaded with JC transfers all over their roster. This is a road game that will be challenging and tough after Boise State, a perfect quagmire for the Cougars after staying in the state for more than a month. QB Nick Fitzgerald led the SEC in total offense last year and will be a handful. Mississippi State 24, BYU 21. (4-3).
Oct. 21 – East Carolina in Greenville: The Pirates have a new 4-2-5 defense installed after struggling mightily a year ago, last among 128 FBS schools. That plus a relatively new QB situation and loss of WR Zay Jones give the Cougars plenty of openings to exploit in Greenville. Look for Mangum to put up big numbers. BYU 45, East Carolina 14. (5-3)
Oct. 28 – San Jose State in Provo: SJSU has struggled to win on the road and even after a week’s rest from a trip to Hawaii, the Spartans will have plenty to worry about in Provo. Look for Mangum and his receivers to have a heyday in LaVell Edwards Stadium after confidence in Greenville. Records will be broken. BYU 52, San Jose State 14. (6-3)
Nov. 4 – Fresno State in Fresno: New coach Jeff Tedford will have faced MWC foes New Mexico, San Diego State and UNLV on consecutive weekends before hosting BYU. Telford, the former Cal coach, will need time to turn around a 1-11 season, ashes left by Tim DeRuyter. Look for BYU’s defense to shine and Mangum to continue a late-fall numbers game. BYU 52, Fresno State 17. (7-3)
Nov. 10 – UNLV at Las Vegas: BYU fans love Las Vegas and with the Rebels needing to solidify its QB spot early, the Cougar defense should prove very difficult for this lower-division MWC opponent. With all respect to UNLV defensive coordinator Kent Baer, he will have his hands full with BYU’s pro style offense because Mangum’s line will protect. UNLV’s lack of scoring punch the past few years won’t be resolved anytime soon. BYU 42, UNLV 10. (8-3)
Nov. 19 – Massachusetts in Provo: Since elevating its football program to FBS status, the Minutemen have struggled with 1-11, 1-11, 3-9, 3-9 and 2-10 seasons. At the end of this season, they’ll be beaten up, nursing another losing record and just looking for a good time on a road trip to the Rockies. Here they’ll meet Sitake’s team trying to get double-digit wins. The score will be whatever Sitake wants it to be. BYU 52, UMass 9. (9-3)
Nov. 25 – Hawaii in Honolulu: It has always been tough for BYU in Aloha Stadium because the University of Hawaii has always seen the Cougars as one team they have to get up for as a matter of pride. Nick Rolovich has excelled in turning around a 3-10 Hawaii team to 7-7 and a bowl win a year ago. Still, coming off a league road trip to Utah State before meeting the Cougars is in BYU’s favor. Hawaii’s struggles on defense should make Mangum and company hungry and motivated for a closing regular season win. BYU 38, Hawaii 27. (10-3).
Conclusion: Sitake’s team is capable of a 10-win season but to make it special, they’ll need to defeat Utah and get either LSU, Wisconsin or Mississippi State in the front-loaded portion of the schedule. Doing that would elevate it to a top-25 caliber team.