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Where does BYU stand among College Football Playoff contenders?

One national expert believes the Cougars are the West’s best shot at making the College Football Playoff, while others see BYU as an option for a New Year’s Six bowl

Brigham Young Cougars tight end Isaac Rex (83) celebrates his touchdown with Brigham Young Cougars offensive lineman Connor Pay.
Brigham Young Cougars tight end Isaac Rex (83) celebrates his touchdown with Brigham Young Cougars offensive lineman Connor Pay (70) in Logan on Friday, Oct. 1, 2021.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

With the 2021 college football season nearing its midpoint and BYU undefeated and currently ranked No. 10 in the nation, it’s natural for national media outlets to discuss the Cougars’ chances of making the College Football Playoff.

How realistic is it, though? BYU (5-0) still has four Power Five programs to play, hosts traditionally tough Boise State this week and must overcome a slew of injuries that is testing the program’s depth, particularly on the offensive side of the ball.

The first College Football Playoff rankings of the season come out Nov. 2, and between now and then, undefeated programs and teams on the rise will continue to earn their share of discussion time on the airwaves and in news articles.

Outside of the nation’s top two teams — the SEC’s Alabama and Georgia, who’ve established themselves as the top programs in the country heading into October — the field appears wide open for the other two CFP spots.

Teams such as Iowa, Oklahoma, Penn State, Ohio State and other Power Five schools stand in the Cougars’ way, and a lot of things would need to go in BYU’s favor for any chance of a playoff spot.

Also, Cincinnati may have the inside track to a CFP spot outside the P5 over BYU after the Bearcats went into South Bend and beat Notre Dame 24-13 last Saturday.

The Pac-12’s Oregon likely has a better shot at the playoff than BYU, too. The Ducks’ CFP hopes took a big hit last Saturday with a loss to unranked Stanford, though they own a victory at Ohio State early in the year that significantly strengthens their CFP resume.

The truth is, though, that national pundits are at least talking about BYU and its chances of making the CFP as the season nears its midpoint.

Why BYU could be a contender for the College Football Playoff

Yahoo Sports’ Pete Thamel listed BYU as one of seven schools that could break into the CFP for the first time in what has so far been a wacky 2021 season. Part of the unpredictability that’s happened this season is evidenced by last week, when nine ranked teams lost.

Thamel writes that BYU is the West’s best option, over even Oregon, to make the CFP. His reasoning has to do with Cougars coach Kalani Sitake and the work he’s done in establishing an identity with the program.

“The Cougars have been salty so far, overcoming injuries and figuring out ways to beat Arizona, Arizona State and Utah. How’ve they done it?”

“It all comes back to Kalani Sitake,” BYU offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick told Thamel. “He’s like the Ted Lasso of college football coaches. He’s so positive all the time. Our players love playing for him and coming in the building every day. Practice is fun and meetings are fun. He’s created such a fun environment to play and coach in.”

Thamel, too, points out that BYU has built depth to overcome the injury issues it’s had and is able to compete and win in those circumstances.

“Opportunity awaits BYU for more showcases — Boise State, at Baylor, Washington State, Virginia and a trip to USC remain on the schedule. Will that be enough for Coach Lasso?,” Thamel wrote.

The Athletic’s Nicole Auerbach has BYU at No. 8 in her most recent ranking of the nation’s top 10 programs, giving the Cougars credit for building upon an 11-1 season in 2020.

“The Cougars are 3-0 against Pac-12 competition, 1-0 against the AAC and now 1-0 against the Mountain West. I like breaking down their schedule this way, because their time as an FBS independent is coming to an end within a few years and also because it underscores just how tough this particular schedule is,” Auerbach wrote. “If you thought BYU would drop off in a post-Zach Wilson era, think again.

“The Cougars have won with multiple starting quarterbacks this year. They have a terrific running back in Tyler Allgeier, who finished Friday night’s win against Utah State with a career-high 218 rushing yards and three touchdowns. They have a defense capable of fourth-down stops and forcing turnovers. This is a team that is quickly becoming appointment viewing.”

The challenge for those outside the P5 to break into the CFP

BYU’s chances at breaking into the CFP, though, are indeed slim, considering no team outside the Power Five has ever done it. Plus, there is another strong contender outside the Power Five in Cincinnati, which, like the Cougars, will be joining the Big 12 in a couple years.

Action Network’s Brett McMurphy, in his projections for the bowl season this week, described how he evaluated programs to make his predictions. He’s looking at how he believes the CFP will rank teams at the end of the season, and he doesn’t see either Cincinnati or BYU being ranked above any currently undefeated Power Five programs or even above any current one-loss P5 teams that finish with fewer than two losses.

“BYU is basically in the same position as Cincinnati,” McMurphy wrote. “The Cougars could finish the season with seven victories vs. Power 5 opponents — if the Pac-12 is still considered a Power 5 conference in December.

“Nonetheless, BYU also would likely lose in the committee’s head-to-head comparison against any undefeated or one-loss Power 5 opponents.”

More realistic option: a New Year’s Six bowl

Even with an undefeated regular season, the Cougars would still be facing an uphill battle to earn a spot at the CFP table. Considering BYU is playing seven Power Five programs, though, it’s fair to suggest they could be strongly considered for an at-large spot in a New Year’s Six bowl with a 12-0 regular season.

“BYU is in an interesting position. As an independent, the Cougars don’t qualify for the Group of 5 spot for the New Year’s Six, leaving them to compete for one of the three at-large spots (assuming they’re not in the playoff),” ESPN’s Kyle Bonagura wrote. “It’s hard to imagine a scenario in which an undefeated record doesn’t merit an NY6 spot, but a single loss likely closes the door. Either way, BYU is 5-0 and the Cougars will expect to win every game left on their schedule.”

A few national publications predicted the Cougars would make a New Year’s Six bowl in their most recent bowl projections:

  • Stewart Mandel, The Athletic: Fiesta Bowl, BYU vs. Oklahoma (5-0) — Four of the No. 6 Sooners’ five wins have come by one score and they play No. 21 Texas this week.
  • Brett McMurphy, Action Network: Fiesta Bowl, BYU vs. Cincinnati (4-0) — The Bearcats kick off American Athletic Conference play this week and own wins over Notre Dame and the Big Ten’s Indiana.
  • College Football News: Peach Bowl, BYU vs. Penn State (5-0) — The No. 4 Nittany Lions already have two wins over then-ranked opponents and play at No. 3 Iowa this week.

What if BYU loses?

The reality is, until BYU joins the Big 12 in 2023, its bowl options are limited. This year, the Cougars are tied into playing in the Independence Bowl as long as they are bowl eligible (BYU needs just one more win for that) and if they don’t make a NY6 game or the CFP. That’s the team’s likely destination with even one loss.

So, who could be the Cougars’ opponent in that game?

BYU’s projected opponents for the Independence Bowl in this week’s bowl projections:

  • CBS Sports: UAB (3-2) — The Blazers are coming off a 36-12 loss to Liberty.
  • ESPN, Kyle Bonagura: UTSA (5-0) — The Roadrunners’ undefeated start to the year includes a win over the Big Ten’s Illinois.
  • ESPN, Mark Schlabach: UTSA — BYU and UTSA played last season, with the Cougars earning a tight 27-20 victory.