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Cougars’ moment of truth provides opportunity to validate season — or question it

It took some 11th-hour wheeling and dealing, but the Cougars got a matchup they wanted in No. 18 Coastal Carolina

BYU quarterback Zach Wilson reacts after their win against North Alabama in Saturday, Nov. 21, 2020, in Provo. The Cougars will have the chance to walk the talk, er, headband Saturday when they play No. 18 Coastal Carolina.
Jeff Swinger, Associated Press

The Cougars asked for it. They got it.

They threw down the gauntlet, or at least their quarterback and his headband did.

Any team, any time, any place.

In a game that was thrown together at the 11th hour, BYU will fly to South Carolina to play Coastal Carolina in a nationally televised showdown Saturday between two unbeaten, nationally ranked teams.

BYU, 9-0, ranks No. 8 in the AP and Coaches polls. Coastal Carolina, 7-0, is 14th. BYU is 13th in the College Football Playoff ratings, Coastal Carolina 18th.

They are both from football’s peasant class — they are not part of the Power Five that college football was built to serve. As such, they are trying to break into the Inner Circle — in this case, a New Year’s Six bowl — but to do that they need to add to their resumes.

This game might do that (feel free to maintain a healthy dose of skepticism).

Fair or not, everything is on the line Saturday. The high ranking in the polls, a New Year’s Day bowl game, the Heisman race, the unbeaten record.

One game could validate or invalidate the entire season.

Texas A&M and Florida can be forgiven losses; and Georgia, Iowa State and Oklahoma can be forgiven two of them, but not BYU or Coastal Carolina.

As everyone knows, both teams have had their unbeaten seasons denigrated by charges that their schedules are weak. They are guilty as charged. BYU’s schedule ranks 106th in the nation, Coastal Carolina’s 107th. BYU’s opponents so far have a cumulative record of 31-41 and only two of them have winning records; Coastal Carolina’s opponents are 33-45, and just three of them have winning records.

But in the season of COVID-19, extenuating circumstances should be considered. In the case of the Cougars, they had to rebuild their once-strong schedule after most of their original opponents canceled. While many of the country’s top programs were parked on the sideline afraid to start the season, BYU played on and dealt with the hand it was dealt — and won by a landslide (average score 45.3-13.9)

Yet Ohio State, which has played five fewer games than BYU, ranks fourth in the CFP and appears headed for the playoffs. The Buckeyes’ wins are over 1-4 Nebraska, 1-5 Penn State, 2-4 Rutgers and 5-1 Indiana.

Iowa State, with two losses, vaulted from 13th to ninth in the latest CFP ratings by beating Texas, which has three losses.

College football is rigged against the Group of Five conferences. Not one team from those conferences has qualified for the national playoff since it started six years ago, and of the 36 berths offered by the New Year’s Six bowls, only five have been claimed by the Group of Five.

The Cougars and Chanticleers, much to their credit, have been searching for another opponent instead of resting on their considerable accomplishments and playing it safe. When Liberty was forced to cancel its game with Coastal Carolina Saturday, a replacement game was quickly arranged with BYU.

The hope of course is that this will validate their seasons with the powers that be. When the CFP selection committee released its first ratings last week, dropping BYU from eighth in the other polls to 14th, selection committee chairman Gary Barta said, “Certainly the schedule (BYU’s), compared to the teams around them, came into play.”

Earlier this season, BYU’s game against nationally ranked Boise State was supposed to partly address the problem of a weak schedule, but BSU was forced to play its third-string quarterback and BYU won 51-17 (on the other hand, that was Boise State’s starting defense out there, right?). This week, Barta told CBS, “When you look at the schedule, look at the teams ... right now BYU’s best win is over Boise State, and in that game I think they got down to their third-string quarterback,” said Barta. “BYU has played three games against .500 or better opponents.”

Whether a win over Coastal Carolina is enough to convince Barta and his friends to move BYU up the CFP rankings and into a New Year’s Six bowl is questionable. A win by one independent team with a weak schedule over another team with a weak schedule from the Sun Belt Conference does not necessarily equal all of the above for the selection committee. But both teams have still managed to impress enough to climb high into the national rankings and Saturday’s game demonstrates a willingness to do all they can to prove themselves.

Under the circumstances of this odd season, that should be enough.