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How good is BYU? Could the Cougars run the table?

No team causes more consternation for pollsters year to year than BYU

BYU players celebrate after defeating Arizona State at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Saturday, Sept. 18, 2021.
BYU players celebrate after defeating Arizona State at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Saturday, Sept. 18, 2021. The 15th-ranked Cougars will face South Florida Saturday at LaVell Edwards Stadium.
Shafkat Anowar, Deseret News

BYU is off to a great start this fall. The Cougars, the only team in the country to open with three Power Five schools, are not only unbeaten but haven’t even trailed in a game this season. They have demonstrated a knack for big plays when it matters most, whether it was Tyler Allgeier punching the ball out of an opponent’s grasp on a game-changing play against Arizona State or making key fourth-down stops. For all of the above, the Cougars are ranked 15th in this week’s AP Top-25 poll.

So far, their encore act to the surprising 2020 pandemic season has been to do it all over again, even without quarterback Zach Wilson and other stalwarts from that team.

Stewart Mandel of The Athletic summed it up well: “We thought BYU’s moment came and went with Zach Wilson, but lo and behold, the Cougars have kicked off 2021 with wins over three Pac-12 foes; the last two, Utah and Arizona State, were ranked at the time. BYU’s defense hasn’t allowed more than 17 points in any of its matchups. … Dare we dream of Kalani Sitake bringing an 11-0 BYU team to the (L.A.) Coliseum on Nov. 27 (against USC)?”

All of the above notwithstanding, the Cougars, 14-1 since the start of last season, still face the same old question: How good are they really? In the AP rankings, they are 15th; in the USA Today Coaches Poll they are 16th. In the Massey rankings — a composite of about two dozen polls — they are 20th. A certain amount of variance from poll to poll is to be expected, especially early in the season, but no school in the top 25 has been given such a wide range of rankings — from No. 4 in Billingsley to No. 68 in Sagarin. BYU is always a problem for the pollsters and has been since the 1980s. No other team causes them more consternation.

(Sagarin might want to retool the motherboard of its computer rankings; it ranks Utah ahead of BYU, at 35th — the same team that BYU defeated 26-17. Arizona State is ranked 38th — the same team BYU defeated 27-17. It’s like saying 2 + 2 = 68.)

There was certainly room for some skepticism last year when BYU was winning 11 of 12 games against a weak schedule — one that had to be rebuilt at the 11th hour because of pandemic cancellations. In the final rankings, the Cougars ranked No. 11 despite a strength-of-schedule ranking of only 106.

This season they’ve beaten three Pac-12 teams, and last time we checked the Pac-12 was still a Power Five conference (whether this is deserved is another question). The scores were remarkably similar — in order, 24-16 over Arizona, 26-17 over Utah, 27-17 over Arizona State. On the other hand, it turns out that Arizona isn’t a good team — the Wildcats are 0-3 and just lost to Northern Arizona. And Utah is 1-2, its only win coming against FCS Weber State. Time will tell how good Arizona State is. BYU’s strength of schedule ranks 53rd.

All the Cougars can do is continue to win, just as they did last season, and the votes will come around. Last season’s weak schedule didn’t matter as much as their 11-1 record in the final poll.

As many have noted, there is no team on the rest of the schedule that looks unbeatable for BYU. They play 1-2 South Florida next, in Provo, then travel to Logan to play Utah State, which is unbeaten, with road wins over Washington State and Air Force.

Boise State, which has become a rivalry opponent over the years, has lost close games to UCF and Oklahoma State.

The Cougars then travel to Baylor, which is unbeaten in three games, including a 45-7 romp last week at Kansas. The Baylor and Utah State road games look like the biggest challenges until the finale.

The Cougars also will travel to Washington State, which is 1-2 with losses to Utah State and USC and a win over Portland State.

Virginia, coached by former BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall, is 2-1, with wins over William and Mary and Illinois and a loss to nationally ranked North Carolina. Mendenhall was BYU’s head coach the last time the Cougars played Virginia, in 2014. The Cougars won 41-33 in Provo.

Idaho State and Georgia Southern — the former an FCS school and a weak one at that, the latter a former FCS powerhouse that has one win so far this season.

USC, which fired its head coach after a loss to Stanford, is 2-1, with wins over San Jose State and Washington State.

It looks like the Cougars, with their strong start, have set themselves up for another memorable run.