Walking off the field at LaVell Edwards Stadium last Saturday night after steamrolling Virginia 66-49 to improve to 7-2, the BYU Cougars had a lot to celebrate in the present, but not much in the immediate future to get excited about.
That all changed Tuesday night when the first College Football Playoff rankings of 2021 were released and the Cougars, somewhat surprisingly, were slotted at No. 15. It was better than expected, considering BYU was 9-0 last year at this time and was handed a disappointing No. 14 ranking, and also because the Cougars are No. 17 in the Associated Press Top 25 poll and No. 20 in the coaches poll.
If nothing else, it was a show of respect from the CFP committee for the Cougars going 5-1 against Power Five opponents the first two months of the season.
“Yeah, I think we are just really grateful to be acknowledged by the committee like that,” BYU safety Hayden Livingston said an hour after the rankings were released. “We have all been working really hard, players and coaches. That’s really nice of them to put us at 15, but I know right now, though, none of us are looking ahead, other than Idaho State.”
Suddenly, the team that was seemingly a lock to play in the Radiance Technologies Independence Bowl in Shreveport, Louisiana, on Dec. 18 against a team from Conference-USA (or in the Guaranteed Rate Bowl in the unlikely event that conferences ticketed to play in that game in Phoenix, Arizona, can’t fill the spots) has a glimmer of hope of being invited to play in a New Year’s Six bowl.
A lot has to happen for the latter to happen — including an unlikely jump into the top 10 with only one remaining Power Five opponent (USC) on the schedule — but BYU’s postseason prospects are looking a little brighter than they did at this time last week.
“We know that things will end up how they are supposed to if we just go execute at a high level every Saturday,” Livingston said.
As usual, questions about what will motivate the college football independent the remainder of the regular season began popping up minutes after BYU suffered its second loss of the season, 38-24 to future Big 12 foe Baylor on Oct. 16.
Those questions are really pertinent this week as BYU hosts 1-7 Idaho State of the Football Championship Subdivision on Saturday at 1:30 p.m. MDT at LaVell Edwards Stadium. The Bengals haven’t won since beating UC Davis 27-17 on Oct. 9 in Pocatello.
Tuesday’s ranking pretty much provided an answer.
“I think that drive (to work harder) has picked up since those rankings came out, because we know our potential, we know the direction we are going, and those rankings just encourage us to do better and be better,” said long snapper Austin Riggs.
After watching their Cougars play Saturday afternoon, fans should pay attention to the UTSA-UTEP game Saturday night, because the winner will have the inside track of being C-USA’s representative in the Independence Bowl.
The Cougars defeated the Roadrunners 27-20 last year in Provo, but this year UTSA is 8-0 and could theoretically get into the top 25 of the CFP rankings if it keeps winning.
Running back Lopini Katoa, who said Wednesday that he isn’t sure yet whether this season will be his last, or if he will take advantage of the NCAA-allowed extra year of eligibility due to COVID-19, said the Cougars will be happy with whatever postseason destination they get.
“At the end of the day, the selection is out of our control,” Katoa said. “What we can control is winning the games. Hopefully we can just win out and handle the things on our end and then leave it up to them. Hopefully we get a good bowl game. If not, we will take the bowl game we have.”
Although they are still banged up, with starters James Empey, Gunner Romney and Harris LaChance likely out on offense, the Cougars should be able to “empty the tank” against the Bengals because they are idle next week, coach Kalani Sitake said Monday.
That’s the perspective hybrid linebacker Morgan Pyper is taking.
“Honestly, you are excited to play any Saturday, or in any bowl game,” Pyper said. “Just the opportunity to play football is awesome and a huge blessing. So being ranked 15th, we are excited about that. But we still got a lot more to prove, beginning Saturday against Idaho State.”
Offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick said he watches the CFP rankings like any other college football fan, but noted Wednesday that BYU’s ranking means nothing if the Cougars don’t continue to play well, including Saturday against a lower-level opponent.
“So you recognize it. You appreciate it. You recognize that there is an opportunity there,” he said. “But the goal is, ‘Let’s go play well this Saturday and then see where it takes us.’ If you spend all your time looking at that, talking about it, it might become a distraction that might cause you to not play well. So I think we have a mature enough team to handle it. But yeah, it is cool.”