For the first time in the history of the College Football Playoff, BYU found itself in the CFP rankings Tuesday night, when the initial 2020 rankings were unveiled and the Cougars came in at No. 14.
There was little celebrating, though, as the undefeated Cougars — 9-0 for the first time since 2001 — were ranked below three two-loss teams. That included the SEC’s Georgia (5-2) at No. 9, as well as the Big 12’s Oklahoma (6-2) at No. 11 and Iowa State (6-2) at No. 13.
With just one game left on its schedule — unless athletic director Tom Holmoe is able to line up one or two more — BYU is in an unlikely position to make a New Year’s Six bowl, which comes with a lucrative pay day for its participants.
BYU’s No. 14 spot became one of the hottest topics of conversation in the college football world after the rankings came out.
“I think BYU got hosed of all the teams in the first rankings (of the CFP),” said ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit, per KSL’s Sean Walker.
"I think BYU got hosed of all the teams in the first rankings (of the CFP)," -- ESPN's Kirk Herbstreit on SportsCenter tonight. pic.twitter.com/zlu6FRKuQg— Sean Walker (@ActuallyDSW) November 25, 2020
Stadium’s Brett McMurphy had serious doubts BYU could stay in contention for a NY6 bid.
BYU biggest loser in inaugural @CFBPlayoff rankings. At No. 14, doubtful BYU could climb high enough to earn New Year’s 6 at-large bid— Brett McMurphy (@Brett_McMurphy) November 25, 2020
So, what went wrong for BYU? Two topics dominated the conversation surrounding the Cougars — their schedule and the eye test.
CFP committee chairman Gary Barta, the athletic director at Iowa, pointed to BYU’s schedule and how it compared to teams surrounding them in the rankings when asked why the Cougars — who are No. 8 in both the Associated Press and Coaches polls — were ranked so low.
“The Cougars have simply been dominant against a schedule that admittedly isn’t the toughest. Only Texas-San Antonio has come within 17 points in their nine victories,” USA Today’s Erick Smith wrote, in identifying BYU one of three losers (along with No. 4 Ohio State and the Pac-12, whose two CFP ranked teams sit below BYU) from the initial rankings.
“But with only an impressive win against Boise State, which Barta noted was short-handed, there’s just not enough meat on the bone to convince those in charge to move them higher than No. 14.”
Former Heisman Trophy winner Desmond Howard, now a college football analyst at ESPN, argued that BYU’s schedule was out of its control, in a year where COVID-19 has greatly impacted the game — the Cougars’ initial 2020 schedule included six Power Five opponents, before BYU was forced to recreate a schedule that was largely filled with schools from the Mountain West, Athletic American, Sun Belt and Conference USA.
“It was completely unfair,” Howard said during ESPN’s “Get Up” on Wednesday. “There’s absolutely no way that you can watch BYU play games and think that they deserve to be ranked No. 14. That’s asinine to me!”
.@DesmondHoward is NOT happy about BYU being ranked No. 14 in the CFP ranking.— Get Up (@GetUpESPN) November 25, 2020
"It was completely unfair ... There's absolutely no way that you can watch BYU play games and think that they deserve to be ranked No. 14. That's asinine to me!" pic.twitter.com/H98IlHNUUr
Others in the national media also weighed in on BYU’s ranking and how the schedule impacted it:
Yes... the SOS is awful... but clearly the #CFBPlayoff didn’t watch a minute of BYU football this season.— Anish Shroff (@AnishESPN) November 25, 2020
I understand BYU's schedule is dreadful, but two-loss Georgia's wins came against opponents that are a combined 15-22. Auburn only team w/ winning record they beat.— Heather Dinich (@CFBHeather) November 25, 2020
I’m fine with where Cincinnati is. BYU is getting scorched for the strength of schedule. Really not sure what else BYU is supposed to do. You can’t really say “PLAY SOMEBODY, ANYBODY” when all of those bodies are pretty much locked out from non-conference games this year.— Kevin McGuire (@KevinOnCFB) November 25, 2020
CFP committee: “Hey, listen, I know these schedules are all over the place and A&M hasn’t played in two weeks, but hey, the ‘Rona be crazy, amarite?” Also the committee: “So what if BYU had a great schedule but had it all canceled and were forced to scramble. Covid is no excuse.”— Ryan McGee (@ESPNMcGee) November 25, 2020
The eye test
Several national media came to the defense of BYU by pointing to the eye test. The Cougars are winning their games by an average of 33.7 points this season, and BYU is the only FBS team that ranks in the top 10 in scoring offense, scoring defense, total offense and total defense.
Former Heisman winner Matt Leinart, now an analyst at Fox Sports, questioned how much the CFP committee has watched BYU play.
If the committee “watched the games” they’d certainly have BYU ahead of some of these other teams.— Matt Leinart (@MattLeinartQB) November 25, 2020
ESPN’s Kevin Negandhi argued the eye test should be a big factor, especially considering the schedule imbalance of the 2020 season.
Eye test should play a huge role w schedule imbalance.. I’m stunned BYU is 14 in the first release.. they only have one more game left on the schedule and it’s December 12th. Dec 5th is an open date and Cincinnati has an open date. We can all dream about that showdown.— Kevin Negandhi (@KNegandhiESPN) November 25, 2020
CBS Sports’ Barrett Sallee tabbed BYU as one of the underrated teams from the first CFP rankings, asserting the Cougars should be judged not only on performance but also how they’ve handled the situations out of their control.
“It went to Houston and Boise State and won big. How is BYU supposed to know that the Cougars would struggle and the Broncos would be on their third-string quarterback? It convinced Troy and Louisiana Tech — two traditionally solid Group of Five teams — to come to Provo, Utah,” Sallee wrote. “It left open the back end of the schedule to fill gaps of other teams that have games canceled due to the pandemic (even though one of those teams won’t be Washington). Spare me the strength of schedule talk. BYU should be commended for piecing together something halfway decent.
“The Cougars have been more than halfway decent on the field. Quarterback Zach Wilson is a Heisman Trophy contender with 26 touchdowns and only two interceptions, the offense is third in the nation in yards per play at 7.87, fourth in scoring at 47.6 points per game and its defense ranks 12th nationally at 4.73 yards per play.”
Time and again, the eye test is what prompted members of the national media to call for BYU to be ranked higher:
PURE PLAYOFF PRIVILEGE! I have an answer for Kirk, no this committee hasn’t watched the games we’ve watched. @BYU being where they are nonsensical regardless of schedule. Watch the games. It’s almost as if they’re punished for leaving the @MountainWest I didn’t like the move!— Tim Brando (@TimBrando) November 25, 2020
BYU should be in the top 10. Put them behind Cincinnati if you want. But they should absolutely be in the top 10 the way they have played this season, regardless of competition.— Kevin McGuire (@KevinOnCFB) November 25, 2020
Even the ESPN pundits are stunned by BYU being #14. And now Gary Barta is--of course--telling people sadly how their schedule hurt them. How about WATCHING them play? Ridiculous...— John Feinstein (@JFeinsteinBooks) November 25, 2020
David Pollack: "My gosh, BYU (at) No. 14? That is absolutely nuts to me, just watching how dominant they are, not just analytically, but physically, when you turn on the tape."— Jay Drew (@drewjay) November 25, 2020
I'm genuinely surprised the eye test year didn't reward BYU more. the "I know what I see" portion of that room let me down here.— Mike Golic Jr (@mikegolicjr) November 25, 2020
Firmly believe the committee was looking for reasons to rank #BYU low... instead of looking at the positives they've shown to determine their ranking.— Dari Nowkhah (@ESPNDari) November 25, 2020
They aren't a playoff team in my mind, just not 14... most mis-ranked team in these rankings.
Where does BYU go from here?
With a month left in the 2020 regular season, the Cougars have just one game remaining on their schedule — a Dec. 12 home date against 3-2 San Diego State.
The Cougars are second among non-Power Five teams in the initial CFP rankings: undefeated Cincinnati (8-0) is No. 7, the highest a Group of Five team has ever been ranked in the CFP rankings. While there has been some hope that perhaps Cincinnati and BYU could play — both teams have open dates on Dec. 5 — the AAC announced Wednesday that the Bearcats’ game against Temple this week is canceled due to positive COVID-19 cases in both programs. That casts serious doubts BYU and Cincinnati could play the next week.
BYU coach Kalani Sitake defended his team and its accomplishments during an appearance on ESPN, as well as in a Zoom press conference following the rankings’ unveiling. “With the playoff ranking, I just love our boys so much and I just want to see them get the respect they deserve,” he said.
Greg Wrubell, the voice of the Cougars, pointed to a discrepancy in Barta’s explanation when comparing Cincinnati to BYU, and why there’s a seven-spot difference in their rankings.
CFP committee chair: "BYU has played 3 games against .500 or better opponents, but when you move over to Cincinnati, they're 4-0 against .500 teams...and Cincinnati is top 20 in both scoring offense and scoring defense. Those are some of the differences as we took a look at it."— Greg Wrubell (@gregwrubell) November 25, 2020
Committee members are impressed by Cincinnati being in the top 20 in both scoring offense and scoring defense.— Greg Wrubell (@gregwrubell) November 25, 2020
BYU is the only FBS team in the top 10 in scoring offense, scoring defense, total offense and total defense.
So maybe not that big a difference between the two teams.
“I would just like to see some consistency behind all of it. When people are talking about, this is how we rank it, and then it doesn’t seem like it fits the criteria for all 25 teams on there, that’s all we’re looking for is consistency in the reasoning and the way that they rank it,” Sitake told “BYU Sports Nation” on Wednesday.
“It’s just so different from what we saw in the AP and the Coaches poll and things like that, and I just hope they were able to watch our guys really and see them play.”
Going forward, Sitake expressed the desire to have his team finish strong. In an appearance with Fox Sports’ Joel Klatt on Wednesday, Sitake said, “There’s a lot of frustration, but I want to make sure we channel it the right way.”
“There’s a lot of frustration, but I want to make sure we channel it the right way.”— FOX College Football (@CFBONFOX) November 25, 2020
Kalani Sitake and @JoelKlatt react to @BYUFootball being ranked 14th in the first CFP ranking ⬇️ pic.twitter.com/5LsVs4CjxP
The Athletic’s Stewart Mandel called for BYU to be unafraid in scheduling during open dates on Dec. 5 and 19, amid reports this week about how a potential matchup this weekend between BYU and the Pac-12’s Washington didn’t materialize. (Ultimately, the Huskies are hosting Utah, after Washington’s annual rivalry game against Washington State was canceled due to COVID-19 issues,
“BYU likely needs to finish no lower than No. 11 to earn a New Year’s Six bowl, and it’s unlikely to do so with only one game, Dec. 12 against San Diego State, remaining. The Cougars badly need another quality opponent,” Mandel wrote.
“(Sitake’s) administration is going to need to suck up its pride and do exactly that. Going forward, if any Pac-12 team becomes available on short notice, don’t haggle over the details. Just take it! You need the game a lot more than they do.”
ESPN’s Heather Dinich questioned whether BYU adding more games, perhaps against the Pac-12, would be enough to raise the Cougars’ profile at this point.
“It doesn’t seem as if that will benefit the Cougars enough. BYU is ranked behind three two-loss teams: No. 9 Georgia (5-2), No. 11 Oklahoma (6-2) and No. 13 Iowa State (6-2). If the Cougars are going to earn a spot in a New Year’s Six bowl, they’re going to need some losses above them — and apparently, two isn’t enough,” she wrote.
Former Florida State quarterback Danny Kanell, now working for Sirius XM, had perhaps one of the most fitting descriptions of the challenges BYU, and those outside the Power Five, face.
College football is so brand driven. It's the worst part of the sport. If you aren't a traditional powerhouse you have to do twice as much to prove you belong.— Danny Kanell (@dannykanell) November 25, 2020