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Peavler: Way-too-early breakdown of BYU football's 2018 schedule

While the College Football Playoff ended mere days ago, it is never too early to look ahead to next season. However, it can't be denied that BYU fans are perhaps less optimistic after a dreadful 2017 season. But in the offseason, hope springs eternal.

BYU's slate includes two teams likely to start 2018 in the Top 10 if not the Top 5. This schedule is just as difficult as last year's, which means Kalani Sitake and his new offensive staff have their work cut out for them as they prepare for September.

Here's a way-too-early look at BYU's 2018 football schedule.

at Arizona, Saturday, Sept. 1

2017 record: 7-6 (5-4 Pac-12)

Arizona might be more dangerous with Rich Rodriguez out and former Texas A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin in. It doesn't help that Khalil Tate is returning at quarterback as he rushed for 1,411 yards and 12 touchdowns along with 1,591 yards passing and 14 touchdowns. A game against a Power 5 team is difficult enough, but having a coach like Sumlin in town will make this one that much more tricky.

vs. California, Saturday, Sept. 8

2018 record: 5-7 (2-7 Pac-12)

With the difficult slate and BYU's struggles, this game feels like a must-win in order to make it back to the postseason. Cal's offense is athletic, with Ross Bowers back at quarterback. In case you missed it, Bowers flipped his way into the end zone against Washington State. RB Patrick Laird is no slouch either as he rushed for 1,127 yards last season. With BYU's offense in need of a serious overhaul, the Cougars can't afford to get into a barn-burner with the Golden Bears.

at Wisconsin, Saturday, Sept. 15

2018 record: 13-1 (9-0 Big Ten)

BYU fans are trying to forget the 40-6 beatdown they received at the hands of the Badgers at home last season. Problem is, Wisconsin will be just as good or better in 2018. RB Jonathan Taylor returns after rushing for almost 2,000 yards last season as a freshman. So does QB Alex Hornibrook, who threw 25 TD passes. Wisconsin is likely to be a Top 10 or even Top 5 team headed into 2018.

vs. McNeese State, Saturday, Sept. 22

2018 record: 9-2 (7-2 Southland)

Plenty of FBS teams have learned the perils of playing top-ranked FCS opponents, and McNeese State finished No. 18 last year in the subdivision. QB James Tabary started his career at Arkansas State before transferring, and he had 2,511 yards passing and 21 touchdowns last season.

at Washington, Saturday, Sept. 29

2018 record: 10-3 (7-2 Pac-12)

The Huskies are probably going to be ranked in at least the Top 10 and possibly even the Top 5 when BYU comes to Seattle. Washington returns nine starters on offense, along with star RB Myles Gaskin and QB Jake Browning. It's a tossup whether this game or the one at Wisconsin will be more difficult for the Cougars. Either way, the Cougars have a long way to go to be even competitive in this one.

vs. Utah State, Friday, Oct. 5

2018 record: 6-7 (4-4 Mountain West)

The Aggies completely embarrassed the Cougars last season in Logan with turnover recovery after turnover recovery. At least Utah State won't have Jalen Davis, who made three interceptions and two pick-sixes against the Cougars. Gone also is top running back LaJuan Hunt. Still, BYU can't afford to take Utah State lightly after what happened last season. Jordan Love should be better now that he's the starting QB headed into 2018. This is a game that Kalani Sitake and BYU cannot afford to lose.

vs. Hawaii, Saturday, Oct. 13

2018 record: 3-9 (1-7 Mountain West)

Even as bad as BYU was last season, the Cougars managed to beat Hawaii to end a bad season. Still, QB Dru Brown returns, and he completed over 70 percent of his passes and scored two touchdowns against BYU. However, RB Diocemy Saint Juste and his 1,510 yards rushing isn't coming back. Regardless, the Cougars can expect Hawaii's best shot no matter the circumstances.

vs. Northern Illinois, Saturday, Oct. 27

2018 record: 8-5 (6-2 MAC)

It wasn't long ago that NIU went to the Orange Bowl, but it hasn't been able to reach the same height it reached back in 2012. However, NIU has a solid defense as it allowed just 22.0 points per game last season. Linebacker Jawuan Johnson is dangerous as he made a pick-six against Nebraska and five picks over the season along with two forced fumbles. CB Shawun Lurry also should return after breaking his wrist and missing the bowl game.

at Boise State, Saturday, Nov. 3

2018 record: 11-3 (7-1 Mountain West)

BYU has yet to win a game on the Smurf Turf, and Boise State sure isn't going to make it easy in 2018. The Broncos won't have top receiver Cedrick Wilson, who had 1,511 yards receiving and seven touchdowns. But Brett Rypien and nine defensive starters return. ESPN has the Broncos ranked No. 17 on their Way-Too-Early Top 25.

at UMass, Saturday, Nov. 10

2018 record: 4-8 (FBS independent)

If there was any game that showed how far BYU had fallen last season, it was this one. The Cougars scored 51 points on the Minutemen in 2016 and managed only 10 in 2017. QB Andrew Ford returns after passing for 2,924 yards and 22 touchdowns with just four interceptions, and he missed a game against Mississippi State. UMass still has a long way to go to establish itself as a solid FBS program, but BYU will be more wary as it travels to Boston next season.

vs. New Mexico State, Saturday, Nov. 17

2018 record: 7-6 (4-4 Sun Belt)

New Mexico State just went to and won its first bowl game since 1960 last season. This program has more confidence than it's had in half a century and would love to build on last season at BYU's expense. However, the Aggies will have to do it without senior QB Tyler Rogers and his 4,016 yards and 27 touchdowns or senior RB Larry Rose III or senior WR Jaleel Scott. While it will be hard to maintain New Mexico State's success in 2018, a program that learns to believe it can win is a dangerous thing.

at Utah, Saturday, Nov. 24

2018 record: 6-6 (3-6 Pac-12)

It's nice to have this game in its old place at the end of the season, but there's no denying Utah's domination of this rivalry with a seven-game win streak in hand. The Utes had their ups and downs in 2017, but they have the honor of being the only Pac-12 team to win its bowl game. QB Tyler Huntley also had his ups and downs, but BYU better be ready for him now that he's got an offseason to prepare and get healthy as Utah's undisputed starter. RB Zack Moss has also stepped up with 1,173 yards rushing last year. It's quite possible this game could be the difference between going to a bowl game or not for the Cougars, and the Utes would like nothing more than to end BYU's season without the possibility of a postseason.

Lafe Peavler is a sports strategist for the Deseret News and Follow him on Twitter @LafePeavler.