PROVO — It is becoming increasingly clear that the BYU football team’s biggest challenge the next month or so probably won’t come from remaining October opponents Texas-San Antonio, Houston, Texas State or Western Kentucky, although beating Houston at its home stadium might prove difficult.
Rather, the Cougars’ biggest task could be to remain hungry and humble, even as praise for their dominating 3-0 start pours in from around the country and their national ranking soars to heights not seen for more than a decade.
“We can’t think we are anything yet,” junior quarterback Zach Wilson said Friday night after completing an eye-popping 92.8% of his passes and compiling a passer rating of 222.7 in the Cougars’ 45-14 rout of previously undefeated Louisiana Tech.
Wilson was named the National Offensive Player of the Week on Sunday by the Walter Camp Football Foundation after throwing for 325 yards and two touchdowns and rushing for three touchdowns against the 2-1 Bulldogs. Wilson has thrown for 949 yards and six TDs this season, while completing 85% of his passes — best in the country by almost 9 percentage points.
Also Sunday, BYU soared seven spots in both major national polls, landing at No. 15 in the Associated Press Top 25 and the Amway Coaches Poll. BYU climbed dramatically because six teams ranked ahead of them lost Saturday: No. 7 Auburn, No. 9 Texas, No. 11 UCF, No. 13 Texas A&M, No. 16 Mississippi State and No. 18 Oklahoma.
This is BYU’s highest ranking since 2009, when Max Hall led them to a season-opening upset of then-No. 3 Oklahoma and BYU got to No. 7 before falling 54-28 at home to Florida State. Impressively, the Cougars leapfrogged national powers Wisconsin and LSU in the AP poll, despite those teams not playing (UW) or not losing (LSU).
One national writer, Bill Connelly of ESPN.com and the creator of the S&P+ ratings, even put BYU into his top four contenders for the College Football Playoff with No. 1 Alabama, No. 2 Clemson and No. 3 Ohio State.
“In the shock of the week, the BYU Cougars land in the picks for the first time this season,” Connelly wrote. “The Cougars have put up 148 points during a 3-0 start and — now that they filled out a 10-game schedule — might have the résumé by the end of the season to crack into the playoff picture.”
It’s heady stuff for a program that was not ranked in either poll when the season began and was just thankful that athletic director Tom Holmoe was able to cobble together a schedule after 10 games were wiped off the original slate and a home game vs. Houston was moved to Houston (Oct. 16).
“It is a little bit hard (to not look ahead to the recently added Boise State game on Nov. 7), but at the same time we always (say) our schedule after these games is 0-0,” said junior receiver Gunner Romney, who caught seven passes for 101 yards and a touchdown Friday night. “We go into the next game with the same energy that we would prepare with for the first game. You don’t get a big head from the other games. You have to take it week by week and give your all to each opponent.”
That opponent this week is Conference USA’s UTSA, which had its hopes of being undefeated entering the BYU game snapped Saturday with a 21-13 loss to Alabama-Birmingham. The Roadrunners fell to 3-1 after defeating Texas State 51-48, Stephen F. Austin 24-10 and Middle Tennessee State 37-35 to open the season.
Saturday’s game kicks off at 1:30 p.m. MDT on ESPN2 and the No. 15 Cougars have been installed as an early 33-point favorite; BYU officials are expected to announce early in the week whether fans will be allowed at the game and, if so, how many.
Against UAB, UTSA gave up 409 yards and had only 280, but did force four turnovers. The Roadrunners might have got the ball back with a chance to tie with just over a minute remaining, but were flagged for roughing the punter and UAB (3-1) was able to run out the clock. The visitors were penalized 10 times for 98 yards.
UTSA’s biggest offensive weapon is running back Sincere McCormick, who rushed for 150 yards and a touchdown and is averaging 5.9 yards a carry and 131.8 rushing yards per game.
Wilson called UTSA a “great team” and said the Cougars can’t take anything for granted.
“We are only three games in,” he said. “We have done a great job up to this point, but it really means nothing yet. So no one is going to get complacent. No one is going to look to the future and talk about what-ifs.”
The Cougars weren’t at full strength against La Tech, as starting center James Empey watched from the sidelines with a protective boot on his right foot. Converted tight end Joe Tukuafu filled in admirably, Sitake and Wilson both said.
“He didn’t shy away from the moment,” Wilson said. “There was never a time when Joe seemed timid out there.”
Sitake said the offensive line “is hoping to get James back as soon as possible. But it is nice that when we go to our bench in a lot of positions, we have quality guys who can step in there and take over and really go without missing a beat.”
Tukuafu did that. Sitake has said running back Sione Finau is also “very close” to returning from a knee injury that required surgery last January.
As for Wilson, he’s in the top 10 in the country in several passing categories, in addition to being the most accurate. He is No. 2 in passing efficiency (221.90), No. 8 in passing yards (949) and No. 5 in passing yards per completion (15.8).
Romney is fourth in receiving yards (373) and 12th in yards per catch (23.3).