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BYU is riding high at 4-1 with a full tank of hope and optimism

The Cougars were pegged to finish 11th in the Big 12 when the season started, but are off to an impressive start

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BYU coach Kalani Sitake coaches from the sideline against Cincinnati at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo, Sept. 29, 2023.

BYU coach Kalani Sitake coaches from the sideline against Cincinnati at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Friday, Sept. 29, 2023. The Cougars prevailed to improve to 4-1 on the season heading into their bye week.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

The notion of a 4-1 September record seemed outlandish prior to, and especially after, BYU’s season-opening 14-0 win against FBS newcomer Sam Houston, but here it is — and here the Cougars are. At the onset of October, the Cougars find themselves two wins shy of bowl eligibility in a Big 12 Conference that, except for No. 3 Texas, No. 12 Oklahoma and defending champion Kansas State, doesn’t look anything like the brochure.

Power Five mainstays TCU (3-2), Texas Tech (2-3), Baylor (2-3), Oklahoma State (2-2) and Iowa State (2-3), all picked to finish ahead of BYU in the preseason media poll, all staggered through September. The Horned Frogs, who played in the CFP national championship game last January, just dropped a 24-21 home game to West Virginia — a team picked to finish last.

For Baylor to avoid an 0-4 start, they had to score 29 unanswered points to erase a 35-7 third-quarter deficit to outlast Big 12 newcomer UCF, 36-35. Oklahoma State finished the month with back-to-back defeats, including a 33-7 stunner in Stillwater to South Alabama.

Iowa State has lost two of its last three games, with the 10-7 loss to Ohio particularly puzzling. Texas Tech was considered a valid candidate to challenge the upper three for the conference title, but the Red Raiders not only suffered losses to Wyoming and West Virginia, they also lost quarterback Tyler Shough to a broken leg.

So, what does this all mean for BYU? Exceeding expectations will be challenging, but very possible.

The Cougars have road dates at TCU, Texas, West Virginia and Oklahoma State and home games with Texas Tech, Iowa State and Oklahoma. Two more wins gets BYU bowl eligible in its first year of P5 football. More than two puts them in contention for bowl games with payouts the likes of which they have never seen before.

Most outlets projected BYU below six wins all season. So far, the Cougars are beating the odds, but there are no freebies in the future. No one in the Big 12 surrenders. Just ask UCF. The teams that take care of the ball and attack from start to finish are the ones still standing when the smoke clears.

BYU dodged a bullet Friday against Cincinnati. The Cougars didn’t play on attack for most of the first half, but came alive in the final minute and throughout the third quarter to build a 28-13 lead. However, the Bearcats kept coming and it took Chase Roberts to secure an onside kick attempt in the final seconds to seal the 35-27 win.

Looking at the foes ahead, it will require four quarters of attacking to be a contender.

The bye week arrives at a perfect time for BYU. It’s like pulling into a gas station where the team can rest, check the engine, kick the tires, grab a snack and fuel up for an October ride on a full tank of optimism and hope.

Optimism because reinforcements are coming. The roster the Cougars used to beat Cincinnati on Friday night should look better in Forth Worth against TCU on Oct. 14. There was no Ben Bywater (linebacker) or Talon Alfrey (safety) on defense against the Bearcats, but both could be back for the Frogs. Eddie Heckard (cornerback) played banged up on Friday and will be refreshed by the break.

On offense, injuries sidelined Kody Epps (receiver), Aidan Robbins (running back) and Weylin Lapuaho (offensive lineman) and Parker Kingston (receiver/kick returner) was hardly used in the wake of the megahit he took the previous week at Kansas. None are out for the season and any of those reinforcements will be a welcome sight for offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick.

The Cougars are riding on hope as well. Head coach Kalani Sitake noted after beating the Bearcats that his team still hasn’t put a full game together. But it’s coming and when it does, BYU, a squad picked to finish 11th in the Big 12, is going to be a major headache for those selected ahead of them.

Running the ball has been an issue, but the Cougars did it better against Cincinnati. While Robbins heals, freshman LJ Martin is running like an upperclassman. He is averaging 4 yards per carry with four touchdowns, including two against the run-stingy Bearcats.

Veteran quarterback Kedon Slovis exceeded 11,000 career passing yards Friday night and ran his BYU touchdown total to 10 through the air and three on the ground.

Roberts remains a mainstay in the receiving corps, amassing 24 receptions for 358 yards and two of his three touchdowns were game-changing scores at Arkansas and against Cincinnati.

Defensively, despite losing safeties Micah Harper and Alfrey to fall camp injuries and shuffling through the usual nicks and bruises, the Cougars have improved their total defense ranking from No. 93 last year to No. 66. BYU’s scoring defense is up from No. 100 to No. 51 and on third-down conversion defense, it has improved their national ranking from 120 to 51.

There is still plenty of work to do and there are several challenging offenses ahead, but in Jay Hill’s first year as the defensive coordinator, the trends are moving in the right direction.

A 4-1 September, and riding on a full tank of hope and optimism, has BYU off to a start that may be surprising outsiders, but inside the locker room, it’s just business. These Cougars are believers, and the road ahead in their debut season in the Big 12 is wide open.

Fans cheer as the Brigham Young Cougars play the Cincinnati Bearcats in a football game at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Friday, Sept. 29, 2023.

Fans cheer as the BYU plays the Cincinnati Bearcats at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Friday, Sept. 29, 2023.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Dave McCann is a contributor to the Deseret News and is the studio host for “BYU Sports Nation Game Day,” “The Post Game Show,” “After Further Review,” and play-by-play announcer for BYUtv. He is also co-host of “Y’s Guys” at ysguys.com.