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Analyzing No. 8 BYU’s body of work, and its closest competitors for an NY6 berth

The Cougars are expected to land anywhere between No. 8 and No. 12 when the CFP rankings are released on ESPN at 5 p.m. MST Tuesday, according to several national experts contacted by the Deseret News

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BYU head football coach Kalani Sitake, center, walks onto the field with his team after the Cougars defeated North Alabama in Provo on Saturday, Nov. 21, 2020.

Steve Griffin, Deseret News

As usual, Heisman trophy candidate Zach Wilson and the BYU football teammates the head band-wearing quarterback shares a house with will be glued to their television sets Tuesday night. But this time it won’t just be for “The Bachelorette,” the reality TV dating game show that Wilson admitted he enjoys following.

At 5 p.m. MST Tuesday on ESPN, the first College Football Playoff rankings will be released, and the undefeated Cougars, 9-0 and ranked No. 8 in both major national polls that are about to become obsolete, will see what the 13-member committee really thinks of them.

That dose of reality amid this crazy, pandemic-altered college football season that has seen some teams play as many as 11 games and some teams, such as the University of Utah, play only one is perhaps the most intriguing inaugural release of the weekly CFP rankings since the system was installed six years ago.

Where will the Cougars land?

National college football observers far and wide, when they weren’t getting only half the story and criticizing BYU for not immediately agreeing to play Washington this weekend when the Huskies made overtures late Saturday night, say how the committee will treat BYU (and Cincinnati, to a lesser extent) is one of the biggest mysteries of the season to date.

“I do think we are a team that can play with anyone and I hope we will have the opportunity to show that as we go down the stretch here.” — BYU offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes

Then there is BYU coach Kalani Sitake, who said he doesn’t even know how the CFP rankings work when he was told after the Cougars’ 66-14 rout of North Alabama last Saturday that they are the only 9-0 team in the country and asked where he thinks they will be slotted.

“Tuesday all I (will) care about is we are going to have an option to get better as a team,” Sitake said. “So that’s all that I am going to focus on.”

Poll voters have treated the Cougars and No. 7 Bearcats (8-0) well this season even as BYU has played a schedule the Sagarin Ratings calls the 112th most difficult in the country. Cincinnati’s strength of schedule is 91st.

It is no secret that, in the past, poll voters have treated non-Power Five conference teams better than the selection committee. For proof of that, remember what happened to undefeated Central Florida of the American Athletic Conference a few years ago. Cincinnati belongs to that so-called Group of Five league; BYU is independent.

The general thinking is that if BYU makes the top eight, it should consider itself lucky. Most CFP observers contacted by the Deseret News Monday believe the Cougars will be between nine and 12. Some think they will be around No. 14, which is their ranking in ESPN’s College Football Power Index (FPI). They are No. 16 in Sagarin’s ratings.

However, the Massey College Football Composite, a ranking comparison, has BYU at No. 6. So who knows? 

There is some sentiment that the committee will use a so-called “eye test” more this year than ever, given the discrepancy in number of games played, and BYU should fare reasonably well if that’s the case because it has a relatively well-known quarterback (Wilson) and has played on national television in eight of nine games, sometimes as the only game going on.

BYU offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes, who has coached at P5 stops such as Auburn and LSU, made a mild case for the Cougars during his “Coordinators’ Corner” show on Monday.

“I do think we are a team that can play with anyone and I hope we will have the opportunity to show that as we go down the stretch here,” Grimes said.

Statistically, BYU has made its case, but has not hunted style points in any of its nine games. For instance, Wilson and most of the first-stringers only played in the first half against the Lions. 

And the Cougars don’t have many weaknesses. BYU is the only FBS team in the top 10 in all four of these categories: total offense, total defense, scoring offense and scoring defense. They are seventh in total offense and defense, fourth in scoring offense, and fifth in scoring defense.

With the notion prevalent that BYU’s CFP chances are minimal, at best, which teams should BYU fans keep an eye on Tuesday night?

Let’s start at the top: Alabama, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Clemson, Texas A&M and Florida are most likely the top six. Little debate there.

BYU’s biggest competition for an at-large invitation to a NY6 game are the following:

Cincinnati (8-0) — The Bearcats, No. 13 in FPI and No. 18 in Sagarin Ratings, is going to get the Group of Five’s automatic berth into an NY6, so in that regard they don’t pose as big of a threat to BYU. They have one of the country’s best defenses, and are outscoring opponents by 26 points per game (fourth-most nationally).

Oregon (3-0) — Ranked No. 9 by the AP, the Ducks (and USC, for that matter) present an interesting case because they’ve played three games, beating Stanford (35-14), Washington State (43-29) and UCLA (38-35).

Miami (7-1) — The Hurricanes are one of those teams that pass the eye test, but don’t have a great resume. They were walloped 42-17 by Clemson and have wins over UAB, Louisville, Florida State, Pittsburgh, Virginia, North Carolina State and Virginia Tech. They are not a computer favorite, ranking No. 24 in the FPI and Sagarin rating systems.

Northwestern (5-0) — An impressive win over Wisconsin pushed the Wildcats up to No. 11 in the AP poll, but more dangerous foes lie ahead.

Indiana (4-1) — The Hoosiers gained a ton of respect in a loss, falling 42-35 to powerful Ohio State on Saturday, and have the kind of playmaking quarterback, Michael Penix Jr., who can capture the committee’s hearts.

Georgia (5-2) — Sure, the Bulldogs have two losses. But their composite ratings are top 10 (No. 8 in FPI, No. 7 in Sagarin) and they play in the SEC. So they must be good.