PROVO — Barring a last-minute cancellation in a summer full of them, BYU will begin preseason training camp Tuesday amid a global pandemic and unprecedented uncertainty regarding not only who the Cougars will play, but whether there will even be a college football season at all.

Sure, there are the usual interesting storylines — which we will get to shortly — but the elephant in the room as coach Kalani Sitake embarks on his fifth season with a team coming off consecutive 7-6 seasons is this: Will the whole exercise scheduled to take place the next three to four weeks all be for naught?

“It is rather wild and woolly,” BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe said on July 20, summing up the process of trying to replace canceled games against Utah, Michigan State, Arizona State, Minnesota and Stanford.

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Holmoe left out words such as scary, crushing and potentially devastating. That’s the case because to date no other team in the Football Bowl Subdivision has been more negatively affected by the conference games-only movement than BYU. It appears the Cougars could go from having one of the best schedules in the independence area to the worst.

When Holmoe appeared on BYUtv two weeks ago, hopes were high that the Cougars could replace the Utes on their early schedule with mighty Alabama. But that dream was dashed last Thursday when the Southeastern Conference, to which the Crimson Tide belong, announced a 10-game, conference-only schedule for 2020.

Bye-bye, BYU-Bama.

The SEC’s decision also meant BYU’s Oct. 10 game at LaVell Edwards Stadium against Missouri was not happening either, leaving the Cougars without a Power Five opponent and with only six games on the schedule: Utah State (Oct. 2), Houston (Oct. 16), Northern Illinois (Oct. 24), Boise State (Nov. 6), San Diego State (Nov. 14) and North Alabama (Nov. 21).

As a new week begins, independent BYU cautiously turns its attention to a P5 conference it has wanted to join, the Big 12, and a Group of Five conference to which it once belonged, the Mountain West.

The Big 12 was the last remaining P5 conference yet to announce a scheduling decision, and there was fading hope from some associated with BYU that the 10-team league would add the Cougars for one year only so it can play a full 10-game conference schedule. 

However, the Big 12’s board of directors announced Monday night league teams will play nine conference games plus one non-conference game.

The Mountain West’s decision, which will probably come soon now that all the Power Fives have stated their intentions, also holds ramifications for BYU because the aforementioned USU, Boise State and SDSU are all Mountain West schools. If the Mountain West goes conference games-only, BYU will be left with only three games and will almost certainly turn to a plan the Deseret News has been reporting since May: A scheduling agreement with the other independents not named Notre Dame — University of Massachusetts, University of Connecticut, Army, Liberty and New Mexico State.

“Yeah, no matter what the situation is, everything is a competition. Coaches are going to want to play their best player. The cream always rises to the top, so I think the biggest focus for me is to not worry about anyone but myself. I am in a competition with myself every day.” — BYU quarterback Zach Wilson

It is against that precarious backdrop — not to mention all the precautions in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and a movement announced Sunday by Pac-12 football players threatening to opt out of the season if certain demands aren’t met — that the Cougars begin camp on Tuesday.

Strange only begins to describe the almost daily twists and turns in 2020, but if football is played, here are five compelling storylines to watch as the month unfolds:

The quarterback conundrum

A year ago, Zach Wilson was the undisputed starter heading into camp, largely because he played well against Utah and then was spectacular in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl at the end of his freshman season. Wilson was said to be fully recovered from January 2019 shoulder surgery last August, but he has since revealed that he wasn’t back to 100% for the opener against those same Utes in early September.

This year, after uneven performances in the regular-season finale against San Diego State and the bowl game against Hawaii, both losses, Wilson’s starting spot has been questioned. That’s true because when the other two quarterbacks, Jaren Hall and Baylor Romney, got opportunities to shine in 2019, they did just that. 

Is it an open competition? Quarterbacks coach and passing game coordinator Aaron Roderick says it is, and Wilson didn’t refute that in a June interview with the Deseret News.

“Yeah, no matter what the situation is, everything is a competition,” Wilson said. “Coaches are going to want to play their best player. The cream always rises to the top, so I think the biggest focus for me is to not worry about anyone but myself. I am in a competition with myself every day.”

Brigham Young Cougars quarterback Zach Wilson looks to pass during NCAA football against the Northern Illinois Huskies in Provo on Saturday, Oct. 27, 2018. | Ravell Call, Deseret News

When BYU players returned to campus training facilities on June 1 for voluntary workouts, Wilson was reportedly heavier, stronger and more chiseled physically than ever before.

“Yeah, my athleticism has definitely improved,” said the junior. “I think it is just that maturity and aging process and development that has enabled me to get bigger, faster and stronger.”

Sitake’s conundrum, with input from Roderick and offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes, will be to keep three talented and experienced quarterbacks happy, and engaged. Hall and Romney combined to beat Utah State last year, and Romney knocked off nationally ranked Boise State.

“I think it is a beneficial thing for us as a staff to provide a competition for them, and they are all about it,” Sitake said in a Zoom meeting in May. “The best one is going to be on the field.”

Replacing defensive standouts

A year after defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki’s biggest task was to replace NFL draft pick Sione Takitaki and his cohorts at the linebacker positions, this year’s challenge is filling the shoes of outstanding safeties Dayan Ghanwoloku and Austin Lee.

The obvious candidates are two seniors who have been dinged up, a lot, in their college careers: Zayne Anderson and Troy Warner. If those two can return to the form they showed before career-altering shoulder and foot injuries, respectively, Tuiaki’s defense will recover from a rough year.

The Cougars ranked 68th in the country in total defense last season, after raking 23rd, 34th and 51st in Tuiaki’s first three seasons.

Brigham Young Cougars defensive back Troy Warner (1) looks at the clock near the end of the game against Boise State in Provo on Friday, Oct. 6, 2017. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

“This is probably the most returning starters we have had coming back on defense in all the time I have been here,” Tuiaki said in June. “For us, just continuing to work on understanding our defense, as far as increasing our football IQ, is important, as well as working on fundamentals and getting stronger. That’s our goal.”

One significant change is that linebackers Kavika Fonua, Max Tooley and George Udo got reps at safety in spring camp, before it was cut short after six practices. Sitake found success moving players to positions that better suited their strengths when he was a defensive coordinator at Utah, and he’s hoping that strategy translates to BYU.

The head coach is also going to be more involved in the defense this year, he has promised since the unit was shredded by Hawaii in the bowl game.

Can running backs stay healthy?

For several months in the spring and early summer, BYU fans were excited by the prospects of former Ute Devonta’e Henry-Cole adding speed, depth and playmaking ability to the running backs room in Provo. Alas, Henry-Cole had a change of heart after signing with the Cougars in February and is now enrolled at Utah State.

It was a significant blow for BYU, especially after Grimes, Sitake and Roderick all raved about the acquisition in February. And it hurts because the Cougars simply have had trouble keeping running backs healthy the past few seasons; lack of depth at the spot has been troubling.

If the likes of Lopini Katoa, Tyler Allgeier and Jackson McChesney can stay healthy and Sione Finau can return from a devastating knee injury suffered in practice last November, new running backs coach Harvey Unga can hit the ground running.

Brigham Young Cougars running back Lopini Katoa (4) celebrates his touchdown against the New Mexico State Aggies in Provo on Saturday, Nov. 17, 2018. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

“Seeing it from the coaches’ perspective, there have been two years in a row where we have needed every single person in the running backs room,” Katoa said in March. “Injuries have decimated us. So to me, if we have the opportunity to bring a playmaker in, it makes sense. It makes us a better team.”

That new playmaker might have to be a freshman. Bruce Garrett, a 5-foot-11, 190-pounder from Texarkana, Texas, could get the chance to make some noise if the 4-5 backs in front of him go down or are ineffective.

“We’ve got a good group, even without (Henry-Cole),” Allgeier said in March. “With coach Unga leading us, we are going to become a strength of the team.”

A dominant offensive line, or nah?

Yes, you’ve heard this before, only to be disappointed. Perhaps this year will be different.

On paper, this year’s BYU offensive line appears to have the capability, talent, experience and work ethic to make a difference.

Is it really that good? Given past history, skepticism is acceptable. Only time will tell, and second-year offensive line coach Eric Mateos has spent considerable time the past six months downplaying the hype, which he refers to as “poison” that can thwart a unit’s progress.

BYU center James Empey prepares to snap the ball to quarterback Zach Wilson during warmups in Provo on Saturday, Nov. 17, 2018. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

“Going into last season, I was really dumbfounded with the amount of positive press about the O line,” Mateos said in late March. “Really unwarranted hype, unearned.”

It will be louder this year, because part- and full-time starters Brady Christensen, Kieffer Longson, James Empey, Tristen Hoge, Keanu Saleapaga and Blake Freeland all return, and others such as Harris LaChance, Clark Barrington, Chandon Herring, Utah transfer Mo Unutoa and ex-tight end Joe Tukuafu wait in the wings for their shots.

“The thing I am so impressed with from the offensive line right now is the depth,” Christensen said in May. “I feel like we have nine or 10 real solid guys. But we aren’t listening to the hype; We’re not drinking the poison.”

Stop the run, have some fun (wreak havoc)

Perhaps BYU’s most glaring weakness the past three seasons — the Cougars had an 18-21 record in that stretch — is its defensive line. As has been well-documented, the Cougars struggled to stop the run in 2019, and were just as miserable at getting pressure on opposing quarterbacks.

Will the defensive line, which lost Devin Kaufusi to a transfer to Utah — improve in 2020? The return of senior Khyiris Tonga certainly helps. The Granger High product is a force in the middle and can be dominant at times, then prone to fatigue at other times.

20181014 BYU defensive lineman Khyiris Tonga celebrates a sack on Hawaii Warriors quarterback Cole McDonald Saturday, Oct. 13, 2018. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

As the Deseret News reported in June, Sitake himself will work more directly with the defensive line in 2020. Among other changes, playmaking linebacker Payton Wilgar will often line up as a rush defensive end. Former tight end Alema Pilimai has been moved to defensive end.

“A lot of the (position changes) we are seeing is really us backing up all the things Kalani wants to see us do,” Tuiaki said. “He has obviously had a lot of success in his years as a coordinator moving around certain guys and just trying to get the best 11 guys on the field to do the job.”