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Scouring the schedule: Ranking BYU’s 12 football games in 2021 in order of difficulty

Is USC the toughest opponent on the Cougars’ schedule this season, or are the Utah Utes, who have had BYU’s number for more than a decade?

Utah Utes wide receiver Jaylen Dixon sprints to the end zone during game at BYU at LaVell Edwards Stadium.
Utah Utes wide receiver Jaylen Dixon sprints to the end zone during game at BYU at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Thursday, Aug. 29, 2019. The Utes and Cougars play Sept. 11, 2021, in what could be the Cougars’ toughest game of the year.
Steve Griffin, Deseret News

Barring a late cancellation or postponement, which is always a possibility during this lingering and relentless pandemic, BYU’s football schedule in 2021 is shaping up to be one of the more difficult ones in school history.

To call it the most difficult is probably premature, given the shifting and cyclical nature of college football. Let’s wait until all 12 games are played to assign this slate of games its definitive place in BYU football lore.

Still, there’s no doubt that, from the onset, this lineup appears ultratreacherous with seven Power Five conference schools, blossoming rival Boise State and three other solid Group of Five schools — Utah State, Georgia Southern and South Florida.

There is only one bona fide cupcake, Idaho State of the Football Championship Subdivision.

With the opener against the Pac-12’s Arizona at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas a little more than two weeks away, now seems like a good time to rank the Cougars’ 2021 schedule in order of difficulty. By that, we mean: Which opponents will be the hardest for BYU to beat?

It’s not a ranking of the best teams. Rather, it is an analysis of what opponents will be the toughest outs for this particular BYU team, which is losing key contributors on both sides of the ball, most notably quarterback Zach Wilson, five solid offensive linemen, 1,000-yard receiver Dax Milne and plenty of solid, though not spectacular or irreplaceable, defenders.

The Deseret News quizzed several players at BYU football media day June 17 about the opponent they are most excited to play, and almost all of them pointed to the first one: Arizona.

Seriously? Let’s just say the players are well-coached. They were obviously following the lead of head coach Kalani Sitake and offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick, who has this to say when asked about the biggest game on the independent program’s schedule:

“It might sound really boring, but I am trying to make sure we hammer the lesson into our players’ heads that the game we are most excited about is the next one,” Roderick said. “We have learned not to talk about end-of-season goals, and what our record is going to be, and what defines a great season.

“We have learned to focus more on the process that it takes to win that next game and then you keep stacking those good days one after the other, and at the end of the year you are going to be proud of what happened and there will be something special at the end of that season,” Roderick continued. “I thought we really accomplished that a year ago. During the whole month of August, we were out there practicing, not even knowing when or who we were playing. Our players just learned that we were having fun practicing every day.”

Of course, the Cougars learned their first opponent would be Navy after a really, really rugged schedule was washed away by COVID-19, and a mishmash schedule was put together by athletic director Tom Holmoe that really never tested Wilson and the Cougars.

This one almost certainly will, especially in the month of September.

“Once we got into that season, guys just really learned to appreciate each day,” Roderick said. “And that is what we are trying to do now. How can we get better today? How can we get better tomorrow? And then we will try to beat the team in front of us, and then we will try to beat the next team. And that’s all we are thinking about right now.”

On to our “most-difficult-opponent-for-BYU” rankings. ESPN staff writer Bill Connelly’s highly respected SP+ preseason college football ranking for each team is in parentheses. BYU is No. 31. The Cougars were No. 52 in Connelly’s original rankings in February, but his data back then included an error regarding BYU’s returning production.

1. Utah (21)

Utah Utes defensive back Julian Blackmon (23) makes an interception on a pass intended for BYU wide receiver Micah Simon (13) during the second half of the Utah-BYU football game at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Thursday, Aug. 29, 2019. Blackmon returned the pick for a touchdown.
Utah Utes defensive back Julian Blackmon intercepts a pass intended for BYU wide receiver Micah Simon during game at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Thursday, Aug. 29, 2019, the last time the two teams met. The Utes prevailed that night, making it nine straight victories over their rival to the south. The two teams will meet Sept. 11, 2021, at LaVell Edwards Stadium.
Colter Peterson, Deseret News

Sure, USC is ranked higher by Connelly and almost everyone else, but the Cougars know they can beat the Trojans. They did it two years ago. They haven’t defeated rival Utah since Max Hall threw a touchdown pass to Andrew George for a 26-23 overtime win in 2009.

As Utah fans have told everyone on the planet who will listen, the Utes have defeated the Cougars nine straight times. They can become the first school to win 10 straight games in the series if they can win in Provo on Sept. 11.

BYU has a mental block when it comes to playing Utah in football. Simple as that. For that reason, we’re saying this will be the hardest game to win in 2021 for the Cougars. Besides that, Utah should have its best team since it joined the Pac-12.

The frustration of losing nine in a row “doesn’t boil over to the coaching staff,” said Roderick, a former Utah assistant. “But it is a big deal, for sure. It is a big game. I am not going to argue that it isn’t. It is important, and if you act like it is not a big game, then you are going to keep on getting beat. But (frustration) is not the right word for us.”

Added tight ends coach Steve Clark on the instate game, or whatever Utah coach Kyle Whittingham is calling it these days: “It means a lot. I coached up there. It does mean a lot to them, too. But I don’t know how you consider it a rivalry until we win. You get beat nine, 10 years in a row, I mean, it is not really a rivalry. You gotta win to make it a rivalry again.”

So maybe Whittingham is right.

2. At USC (14)

Former walk-on linebacker Payton Wilgar should lead a revamped BYU defense in 2021.
BYU linebacker Payton Wilgar upends USC Trojans quarterback Kedon Slovis in Provo on Saturday, Sept. 14, 2019. BYU won 30-27 in overtime. The two teams will meet again Nov. 27 in Los Angeles the last week of the regular season.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Wouldn’t it be fun if BYU runs the table against Utah, Washington State and the Arizona schools and this end-of-season matchup becomes the unofficial South Division championship game? Even the mention of that would roil Pac-12 blood.

Perhaps the Trojans’ blood is already roiled when it comes to BYU, because the Cougars upset them 30-27 in overtime in Provo in 2019. Quarterback Kedon Slovis probably remembers, having been intercepted by Dayan Ghanwoloku in OT on the game’s final play.

Slovis is back for his third season, and the Trojans will be looking to go 3-1 in their all-time series with BYU.

3. At Baylor (49)

Baylor coach Dave Aranda, second from right, congratulates his players after a stop against Texas during game in Austin, Texas, Saturday, Oct. 24, 2020. Aranda knows BYU well, having coached against the Cougars when he was at Utah State, Wisconsin and LSU the past decade.
Chuck Burton, Associated Press

The Cougars won’t just be facing two coaches who have a lot of familiarity with them. Of course, Jeff Grimes and Eric Mateos left positions as offensive coordinator and offensive line coach at BYU to take similar spots in Waco. But Baylor coach Dave Aranda also knows BYU well, having coached against the Cougars when he was at Utah State, Wisconsin and LSU the past decade.

Certainly, Aranda, Grimes and Mateos will have the Bears ready, and by Oct. 16 the Big 12 school should be hitting its stride. Baylor was picked to finish eighth in the Big 12 preseason poll, voted on by media representatives.

The Bears were ninth in the league in points and yardage in 2020 and seemingly aren’t as good as Arizona State, Washington State or maybe even Virginia. But the Bears have Grimes, and homefield advantage.

Having lost quarterback Charlie Brewer to a transfer to Utah, Baylor also has a three-way QB battle on its hands. As of Aug. 16, Jacob Zeno, Gerry Bohanon and Blake Shapen were dueling for the spot.

4. Arizona State (22)

Arizona State Sun Devils quarterback Jayden Daniels looks to throw during game against Kent State on Aug. 29, 2019 in Tempe, Ariz. The three-year starter is the type of dual-threat QB that traditionally gives BYU fits.
Rick Scuteri, Associated Press

When Sept. 18 rolls around, fans will have a pretty good idea whether this BYU team is legitimate, or not, because the Cougars will have played Arizona and Utah when the Sun Devils arrive in Provo.

How good ASU is, with NCAA sanctions hanging over its head, won’t be known as much because the Devils open against FCS Southern Utah and then host UNLV the night the Cougars are hosting the Utes.

Arizona State might have the best QB the Cougs see all season in three-year starter Jayden Daniels, the type of dual-threat player that traditionally gives them fits. Daniels seemingly took a step back in 2020 after a great freshman season, completing just 58% of his passes for 701 yards.

The Devils went 2-2 last year, but finished the season with a resounding 70-7 win over rival Arizona.

BYU has won the two most recent meetings between the old WAC rivals, in 1997 and 1998, but ASU leads the series 20-7.

5. At Washington State (45)

Former Hawaii coach Nick Rolovich is now WSU’s coach, and the blue-clad Cougars have a little score to settle, having lost 38-34 to Rolovich and the Rainbow Warriors in the 2019 Hawaii Bowl.
Eugene Tanner, Associated Press

From Waco to Pullman — that’s BYU’s path after meeting the Bears in mid-October, traveling to the Pacific Northwest for a showdown with the other Cougars.

This game is a long time coming — the back half of a home-and-home deal that began in 2012 when BYU crushed Mike Leach-coached Wazzu 30-6 in Provo.

Former Hawaii coach Nick Rolovich is now WSU’s coach, and the blue-clad Cougars have a little score to settle, having lost 38-34 to Rolovich and the Rainbow Warriors in the 2019 Hawaii Bowl.

Washington State was picked to finish last in the Pac-12 North. BYU leads the series 3-1.

6. Virginia (56)

Virginia coach Bronco Mendenhall argues a call during game against Louisville on Saturday, Oct. 29, 2016, in Charlottesville, Va. The former BYU head coach will return to his old stomping grounds this fall when his Cavaliers visit Provo for what is sure to be an emotional game for Mendenhall.
AP Photo/Ryan M. Kelly / The Daily Progress via AP

Bronco is coming, Bronco is coming. Naturally, that will be the storyline locally — and perhaps even nationally, if both teams are having standout seasons — the day before Halloween when former BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall and his Cavaliers make the trip to Provo.

And it won’t just be Mendenhall. Former BYU assistant coaches Nick Howell, Robert Anae, Kelly Poppinga, Mark Atuaia, Jason Beck, Shane Hunter and Garett Tujague also return to where they roamed the sidelines prior to the 2016 season.

That’s why this game figures to be more difficult than, say, another matchup with Boise State. Anae, in particular, will have something to prove after he was barely considered to replace Mendenhall back in 2015.

Virginia, which leads the series with the Cougars 3-2, is picked to finish fifth in the ACC’s Coastal Division.

7. Boise State (39)

Boise State quarterback Hank Bachmeier rolls out to pass during game against Florida State in Tallahassee, Fla., Saturday, Aug. 31, 2019. Bachmeier was a member of the Broncos team that suffered a 51-17 shellacking to BYU last season on the Smurf Turf.
Mark Wallheiser, Associated Press

The last time the Cougars saw Boise State, the Broncos were whining about them taking team celebration photos on the blue turf after that 51-17 beatdown last November at Albertsons Stadium. Boise State has a new coach — Andy Avalos replaced Auburn-bound Bryan Harsin — but some familiar faces such as quarterbacks Hank Bachmeier and Jack Sears and running back George Holani return, having missed all or most of the 2020 game (Sears played briefly before sustaining a concussion).

BYU will be gunning for its third straight win over the Broncos on Oct. 9, but still has a ways to go to catch up in the series, which Boise State leads 7-4.

8. At Utah State (114)

New Utah State coach Blake Andersen looks on during spring game in Logan. Andersen will get his first taste of the BYU-Utah State rivalry when the two schools meet in Logan Oct. 1.
Utah State Athletics

BYU kept the Old Wagon Wheel last year because COVID-19 wiped out the 2020 game, which was supposed to be held in Provo. So the Cougars return to Maverik Stadium on Oct. 1, a Friday, hoping to repeat that 42-14 whipping they laid on the Aggies two years ago.

Jaren Hall played the first half and Baylor Romney the second half, when Hall sustained another concussion that would put him on the sidelines the remainder of the year. Both QBs were equally effective.

Of course, Gary Andersen was head coach back then. He’s been replaced by Blake Anderson, who was mostly successful at Arkansas State.

BYU leads the series 49-37-3.

9. Arizona (96)

New Arizona coach Jedd Fisch answers questions during the Pac-12 Conference NCAA college football Media Day Tuesday, July 27, 2021, in Los Angeles. The first-year Wildcats coach will be looking to snap the program’s 12-game losing streak when it opens the 2021 season against BYU in Las Vegas.
Marcio Jose Sanchez, Associated Press

For the third time in six seasons, BYU and Arizona will meet in a season opener when they tangle at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas on Sept. 4. Arizona has a new head coach in Jedd Fisch after Kevin Sumlin was fired.

Having lost 12 straight games, Arizona will be looking to put a miserable 2020 season behind it, while the Cougars will look for their third straight win over the Pac-12 program.

Arizona leads the series 12-11-1.

10. South Florida (99)

South Florida coach Jeff Scott watches a replay on the video board during game against Tulsa Friday, Oct. 23, 2020, in Tampa, Fla. The Bulls finished the 2020 season losing eight straight games and are picked to finish dead last in the American Athletic Conference for the second-straight season.
Chris O’Meara, Associated Press

Having defeated BYU 27-23 in Tampa in 2019 after Zach Wilson sustained a hand injury the previous week at Toledo, the Bulls return the game on Sept. 25.

South Florida is reeling, having lost eight straight games to finish the 2020 season under first-year coach Jeff Scott. The Bulls are picked to finish dead last in the American Athletic Conference for the second-straight season.

Get used to this matchup; BYU opens the 2022 season at South Florida, then hosts the Bulls in 2023.

11. At Georgia Southern (116)

Georgia Southern coach Chad Lunsford and players celebrate the team’s victory over Louisiana Tech in the New Orleans Bowl in New Orleans, Wednesday, Dec. 23, 2020. The Cougars will face Georgia Southern on Nov. 20.
Matthew Hinton, Associated Press

Until that finale at USC, BYU’s schedule in November leaves a lot to be desired. But at least the Cougars will be well-rested when they make the trip to the Deep South to meet Georgia Southern of the Sun Belt Conference on Nov. 20. They have a bye on Nov. 13.

The Eagles will meet BYU for the first time and have the type of triple-option attack that isn’t easy to defend. They’ve had three straight winning seasons and surely will be fired up to host the Cougars.

12. Idaho State (No SP+ ranking — FCS school)

BYU is 6-0 all-time against the team from Pocatello, Idaho, with all six contests held in Provo. The Bengals don’t figure to have a chance, unless former Pokey resident Taysom Hill suits up for the visitors.