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Where does BYU football go from here?

Following the Cougars’ first loss of the 2021 season, their national profile took a sizable hit. Can they improve it over the back half of the season and build momentum for the future?

BYU running back Tyler Allgeier (25) runs past Boise State defenders for a touchdown during an NCAA college football game.
BYU running back Tyler Allgeier (25) runs past Boise State defenders for a touchdown during an NCAA college football game at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Saturday, Oct. 9, 2021.
Shafkat Anowar, Deseret News

There’s still half a regular season of football left for BYU this year, but last Saturday’s loss to Boise State — the Cougars’ first setback of the season — significantly changed the outlook for the rest of the year.

With one loss, any hopes of BYU as a College Football Playoff contender were done.

So, too, are talks of a New Year’s Six bowl invitation. The only real hope for the Cougars to earn a prestigious bowl invite is to win out, then get a good amount of help.

Where does this leave the Cougars, who still sit at 5-1 and are ranked No. 19 in the latest Associated Press poll? Even with the loss, there are ways to make this season a memorable one while building for the future.

What experts are saying after BYU’s first loss

The Cougars were one of the biggest losers from a chaotic Week 6 of college football that included No. 1 Alabama going down, Iowa rallying past Penn State in a top 5 matchup and upsets continuing to dot the college landscape.

ESPN’s Mark Schlabach said with the loss, BYU hurt its cause the most in Week 6, in regards to the postseason.

Thanks to three victories over Pac-12 opponents, BYU had climbed to No. 10 in the AP poll after a 5-0 start. An at-large bid to a New Year’s Six bowl game seemed like a possibility if the Cougars kept winning,” Schlabach wrote. “But BYU’s dreams came crashing down in a 26-17 loss to Boise State at home Saturday. The Cougars had four turnovers and scored just seven points in the final three quarters. Regardless of how the season goes the rest of the way, BYU will probably do no better than an invitation to its guaranteed spot in the Radiance Technologies Independence Bowl.”

USA Today’s Paul Myerberg also lamented the opportunity the Cougars squandered by falling at home to Boise State, playing an undisciplined game that was uncharacteristic to how BYU had built its 5-0 record.

“Losing 26-17 at home to Boise State ends any chance of No. 10 BYU making the playoff and relegates the Cougars to a second-tier bowl game, very likely the Independence Bowl,” Myerberg wrote. “One of just four teams to not trail at any moment through Week 5, BYU took a 10-0 lead in the first quarter but trailed 20-10 at halftime and 23-10 heading into the fourth. In the end, the Cougars had 100 more yards of offense than the Broncos but were doomed by four turnovers.”

What are the Cougars’ bowl projections now?

Last week, when BYU was still perfect at 5-0 with three wins over Pac-12 schools, three national publications had the Cougars playing in a NY6 bowl against opponents like Cincinnati, Oklahoma and Penn State.

That’s all changed now, as BYU is projected to play in the Independence Bowl — the bowl the team is contracted to play in if it falls short of the CFP or NY6 consideration — in this week’s major bowl projections.

There’s also a consensus opponent: the UTSA Roadrunners.

UTSA is undefeated at 6-0 following a win over Western Kentucky last weekend in a shootout. The Roadrunners played BYU in the pandemic-altered 2020 season, with the Cougars earning a hard-fought 27-20 victory. The Roadrunners of Conference USA have won four of their games this year by single digits, including a seven-point win over the Big Ten’s Illinois.

The other possible opponent to show up is the UAB Blazers, another Conference USA team. The Blazers are 4-2 and have won three of four, including a 31-14 victory over Florida Atlantic the past weekend.

Could BYU work its way back into NY6 contention?

A lot of things would have to go BYU’s way for the Cougars to reenter the discussion about NY6 consideration. The primary concern is win, win, win. BYU has four Power Five opponents in its final six games, though two of them have .500 records right now, which hurts the Cougars’ strength of schedule somewhat.

If BYU finishes the regular season 11-1, however, that would include going unbeaten against seven P5 opponents. At that point, how the Cougars’ opponents fare this season could factor into any possible hopes they would have of making a NY6 bowl.

Arizona State and Utah, two teams the Cougars have already beaten, are the last two Pac-12 teams who have yet to lose a conference game, and they play this weekend. If either one of them wins the Pac-12 title, that would be a big boost to BYU’s resume.

Brigham Young Cougars quarterback Jaren Hall gets pushed by Utah Utes cornerback Clark Phillips III.
Brigham Young Cougars quarterback Jaren Hall gets pushed by Utah Utes cornerback Clark Phillips III during the second half of an NCAA college football game at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021. BYU won 26-17.
Shafkat Anowar, Deseret News

The Cougars’ opponent this Saturday, Baylor, sits at 5-1 on the year and is currently third in league standings with a 3-1 conference mark. If BYU can pull the upset in Waco, Texas, then the Bears win the Big 12, or even make the league championship game, it would be a major boost for the Cougars.

The success of other P5 opponents like USC, Washington State and Virginia will also impact the Cougars.

The initial CFP rankings for the 2021 season will be released Nov. 2, and that first ranking — the CFP rankings are used to determine CFP and NY6 invitations — will help define what BYU’s chances are at reaching at a NY6 bowl, if they win every game from now until then.

Why a strong finish is also important for BYU

Even if BYU falls short of a NY6 bid, there are plenty of driving factors and accomplishments the team can attain in the second half of the season:

  • A winning record over Power Five opponents. The Cougars are 3-0 against P5 programs thus far — beating the Pac-12’s Arizona, Utah and Arizona State — and have Power Five matchups against the Big 12’s Baylor, Pac-12’s Washington State and USC and ACC’s Virginia remaining. A winning record over these opponents would be a big accomplishment as the program gears up to join the Big 12 in 2023.
  • A top 25 or even top 10 finish. If BYU is ranked in the final AP top 25 poll, it would be just the second time, including 2020, they have finished a year ranked in the top 25 since finishing four straight years (2006-09) in the final polls. By winning out, including a bowl win, the Cougars would likely finish the year ranked in the top 10. That’s something they haven’t done since finishing the 1996 season with a 14-1 record and No. 5 national ranking.
  • A 10-win season. Even if BYU were to drop a game or two, there is still a solid chance the Cougars finish the season with a double-digit win season. The Cougars went 11-1 last season and could win 10 or more games for just the second time in the past decade. In the past six seasons where BYU started 5-0, they have finished with double-digit wins in each season, according to CougarStats. That includes going 11-1 in 1979, 11-2 in 1981, 13-0 in 1984 (the Cougars’ national championship season), 12-2 in 2001, 10-3 in 2008 and 11-1 in 2020.
  • Build momentum for a young team. A good majority of this Cougar team will be returning next season, and there are just three seniors on BYU’s current depth chart heading into the Baylor game. Finishing the season strong with so much returning talent would build momentum heading into a 2022 season that will serve as BYU’s final as an independent and with four Power Five opponents on the schedule.