PROVO — These are unprecedented times in major college football, what with Big Ten, Pac-12 and Mountain West conference teams not named Air Force yet to play a game while others have played as many as four games.
It is way, way too early to separate the contenders from the pretenders and also-rans, especially since some of those would-be contenders for the College Football Playoffs and New Year’s Six bowl games have played an array of less-than-stellar opponents — most notably No. 15-ranked BYU.
Are the 3-0 Cougars for real?
That is a question that has dominated sports talk radio and fan message boards whenever the pandemic-altered college football season is discussed — and not just in Utah and surrounding states. BYU’s wicked-fast start and the video game-like numbers the Cougars have put up against Navy, Troy and Louisiana Tech have garnered national attention, stirred some heated debate.
“We have got that target on our back,” linebacker Isaiah Kaufusi acknowledged Monday as the Cougars began preparations for Saturday’s 1:30 p.m. MDT game at LaVell Edwards Stadium against 3-1 Texas-San Antonio.
A lot of the numbers the Cougars have put up are mind-boggling, but the achievement that stands out the most is that they are No. 1 in the country in both total offense (most yards gained per game) and total defense (fewest yards allowed per game).
They are averaging 585.7 yards and giving up 214.3 yards against the 47th most difficult schedule in the land, according to the Sagarin Ratings, keeping in mind that only 77 FBS teams have played.
Obviously, BYU’s SOS will fall even more when more Power Five teams begin playing — and the Cougars don’t have a Power Five team on their revamped 2020 schedule, despite having five before the pandemic hit.
“All we can do is play the people that are lined up against us each Saturday and I think so far we have done a good job of that,” offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes said Monday on his “Coordinators’ Corner” program.
Another eye-popping stat: BYU has outscored its three opponents 148 to 24, and those totals would be higher/lower if head coach Kalani Sitake hadn’t mercifully instructed backup quarterbacks to take a knee inside the opponent’s 5-yard line in the Navy and Troy games and almost exclusively played second- and third-stringers in the fourth quarters of all three games.
The dominance has been Alabama-like, with the caveat that the opponents are far more similar to the Tide’s usual nonconference foes than its traditional SEC fare. BYU is second in scoring offense (49.3) and fourth in scoring defense (8.0).
It is the first time in school history that BYU has scored 45 or more points in each of its first three games; amazingly, the Cougars have scored at least one touchdown in all 12 quarters they’ve played.
Although realizing the (lack of) strength of the competition, which clearly isn’t BYU’s fault in the midst of a pandemic, national pundits have been effusive in their praise for the Cougars and junior quarterback Zach Wilson — emerging as a fringe Heisman Trophy candidate and a potential NFL draft pick in 2021 if he skips his senior season.
BYU’s sports information department has started to chronicle some of those plaudits in the weekly game notes, even while the coaching staff pleads for the players to avoid the “poison” of hype and accolades.
“I think they’re real,” ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit said on his College Football Podast on Monday. “I know they don’t get a chance to play a lot of great competition, but they’ve beaten teams by an average (of 49.3 to 8). I don’t care if you are playing a high school team, if you are blowing people out, you’re. … looking good.”
Computer models are also jumping aboard: BYU is No. 11 in the Sagarin Ratings and 16th in ESPN’s College Football Power Index (FPI), which says the Cougars have a 33% chance of winning out and a 10% chance of, gasp, making the four-team CFP.
Throughout the preseason — before one of the most difficult schedules in BYU’s independence era disintegrated — when a little bit of boasting is allowed, even encouraged, Wilson and his teammates publicly and privately hinted that this team had a chance to be special.
That’s proving to be true, even if arguably two of the top five players on the team — tight end Matt Bushman and defensive ace Chaz Ah You — suffered season-ending injuries.
“We have a good, mature group, a veteran group, so we are looking forward to these guys leading the way,” Sitake said Monday. “I am excited to see how we go into the (UTSA game) and how we improve as a team. So that’s the focus. We are not really focused on anything besides that. We are trying to stay humble as a team and stay hungry regarding things we need to accomplish. We have a lot to prove, still.”
Other superlatives: BYU is No. 1 in fewest penalties per game (2.67), first in team passing efficiency (214.8); sixth in passing offense (358.7); 14th in rushing offense (227.0); and first in time of possession (36 minutes per game).
Defensively, the Cougars are second in fewest first downs allowed (11 per game), third in third-down conversion percentage defense (.231); fifth in rushing defense (70.7); third in fewest passing yards allowed (143.7); and eighth in sacks (12, after getting 17 all of last season).
Even special teams have been outstanding, with sophomore kicker Jake Oldroyd a perfect 5 for 5 on field goals, including a 54-yarder.
“We don’t need to talk about ourselves,” Sitake said. “Let everybody else do it — whether it is positive or negative. We gotta get things done. … I am asking players not to worry about what is being said out there.”
A lot is being said about Wilson, who has vaulted into the college football world’s consciousness thanks to his otherworldly accuracy and three appearances on national television — all when the BYU game was the only college game on TV at the time.
“He is playing out of his mind right now,” Grimes said. “It goes back and starts with him being healthy. I think he has a lot of confidence in his ability to throw the football right now, and we are seeing the arm strength he had when he was a freshman, combined with the maturity and the wisdom and the experience he has gained in the last few years.”
Wilson is first in the country in completion percentage, connecting on 84.5% of his passes. The FBS record for a single season is 76.7% by Colt McCoy of Texas in 2008.
Wilson is second in passing efficiency (221.9), second in yards per attempt (13.3) and tied for third in points responsible for (66), among other top-10 appearances.
Tuesday, ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. put Wilson at No. 5 on his list of top five quarterback prospects for the 2021 NFL draft. He is “a guy you better get to know now,” Kiper noted.
The Cougars have had other early stars. Junior receiver Gunner Romney is fourth in receiving yards per game (124.3) and 12th in yards per catch (23.3) and running back Tyler Allgeier is ninth in yards per carry (8.1) and 22nd in yards per game (91.7).
BYU’s offense has committed just one turnover and had only two three-and-outs in 35 possessions. Its defense has forced 15 three-and-outs in 36 opponent possessions and given up just one rushing touchdown, second only to No. 1 Clemson.
“There really is a lot to like,” said Grimes, who has coached at LSU, Virginia Tech, Auburn, Colorado, Arizona State and Boise State, among other places. “I have been coaching for awhile now and I have been on a number of teams with really good offenses. I have been on a couple of teams where the defense was pretty good and we weren’t very good on offense. But I can’t think of a time when I have been in a position where everything was clicking on all cylinders like they are now.”