It's the most wonderful time of the year. No, we're not talking about the holiday season, but the last month of the college football regular season. A lot is on the line for teams across the country, and BYU is no different.
Even though the Cougars already became bowl eligible with their win over Boise State on Oct. 25, the Cougars have a lot more to accomplish this season.
This week the Cougars will face their toughest test of the season as they go up against No. 21 Wisconsin Badgers at Camp Randall Stadium in a nationally televised game (1:30 p.m. MST, ESPN).
No doubt BYU is going to have a battle against a tough Wisconsin team. There is optimism, however, that BYU will be able to beat Wisconsin, and here are 10 reasons why.
Justin Giles is a recent graduate of the University of Utah. Brandon Judd is senior web sports writer at DeseretNews.com Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
On Sept. 20, 1980, BYU traveled to Wisconsin to take on the Badgers at Camp Randall Stadium. The Cougars came away victorious as they took control of the game right from the get-go and never let up. BYU won the game 28-3.
BYU racked up more than 434 yards of total offense compared to just 332 for the Badgers. Jim McMahon started his junior year off right as he led the Cougars with three passing touchdowns in the win over the Badgers. That year McMahon went on to throw 47 touchdown passes and ended the season with a dramatic Hail Mary touchdown pass to beat SMU in the 1980 Holiday Bowl.
It's no secret that Mendenhall and Andersen are friendly rivals. Their paths have crossed plenty of times in coaching.
Andersen hasn't had much success against Mendenhall when he's been at the helm, as he went just 1-3 against the Cougars in his four seasons as the head coach at Utah State. During that stretch, both teams won in a blowout (2009 for BYU, 2010 for USU) and the other two games came down to the end (27-24 in 2011, 6-3 in 2012).
If the recent trend holds, expect another close contest between the Cougars and Badgers.
Over the past couple of years, BYU has stressed the importance of its special teams unit. While most teams put out their third and fourth stringers, BYU includes some of its top offensive and defensive players.
This has paid dividends to BYU as the Cougars are up near the top in the special teams categories. Adam Hine has been a huge bright spot for the Cougars and is currently the third best return man with an average kickoff return of 31.9 yards.
As a team, BYU is fourth in the nation in kickoff returns and 35th in the country in punt returns. Wisconsin, meanwhile, is 14th in the nation in kickoff returns and 83rd in punt returns.
Special teams has provided a huge lift this year for the Cougars and will look to keep that momentum going at Wisconsin.
BYU's quarterback loves the big play, and he's used many to make opponents pay. Just ask Texas.
Hill is tied for 22nd nationally in completed passes of 30-plus yards, with 15 so far. Of his 12 touchdown passes, nine have been 10-plus yards. More impressively, half of his scores through the air have covered 25 yards or more.
Hill's even more dangerous in the ground attack. Of his eight rushing touchdowns, six have covered 10-plus yards. Five have covered 20 yards or more.
All totaled, Hill has 11 scores of 20 yards or more through eight games, meaning he should be due for at least one against Wisconsin.
Earlier this season, the Badgers had issues containing a similar-type talent. In Ohio State's 31-24 win over Wisconsin, quarterback Braxton Miller threw for four touchdowns and rushed for 83 yards. Three of his touchdown passes were 25 yards or longer.
This Saturday's game presents the Cougars with a perfect opportunity to showcase how far they have come since the start of the season.
With the game on ESPN and facing an opponent that has proven it's a big-time program, the stage is there for BYU to capture the nation's attention with an upset win. A loss wouldn't crush the Cougars' hopes for the year, but it would lessen their national impact in 2013. That's the glory — and danger — of being an independent.
Go big or go home.
Wisconsin has plenty to play for, too — the Badgers' lone losses are to top 25 foes — though a loss Saturday wouldn't do damage to their Big Ten hopes.
It's been a banner year already in terms of quality opponents for BYU. The Cougars already have victories over three teams that sit atop their respective conference standings overall or lead their division: Texas (Big 12), Houston (AAC) and Boise State (first in MWC Mountain Division).
Another, Utah State, is tied for first in the MWC Mountain Division (though Boise State owns the tiebreaker), and Georgia Tech is 5-2 in ACC play.
It's this type of schedule that has the Cougars 21st in strength of schedule in the Jeff Sagarin rankings; Wisconsin is 59th according to the same rankings.
These numbers show that a 6-2 BYU squad has shown it's capable of competing with top-flight competition this season.
When lining up against power run opponents, the Cougars have built a reputation of being able to stand toe to toe with these types of teams.
In the past two years, the Cougars have twice defeated option-attack Georgia Tech, including holding the Yellow Jackets to 117 rushing yards last season. In 2009, BYU came out conqueror when it faced No. 3 Oklahoma, earning a defining 14-13 victory.
Where BYU has struggled is with big-name programs that have speed on the edges. In 2009, the Cougars lost to Florida State 54-28, and TCU defeated BYU four straight times from 2008-11 by an average of 21 points.
The Badgers are definitely a power run team, averaging 287 rushing yards per game, 10th in the country.
Speaking of rushing attacks, BYU boasts a mighty fine one of its own this season.
Hill is second in the country among quarterbacks in rushing yards, with 841. His backfield mate, Jamaal Williams, is also on track for a 1,000-yard rushing season, with 733 in the seven games he's played.
One interesting aspect to watch Saturday will be the play of the teams' backfields, as four of the nation's top 25 leaders in rushing yards per game will be on the same field. Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon is the best of the four, averaging 134.3 rushing yards per game. Hill (20th, 105.1) and Williams (21st, 104.7) are back to back in the category, and the Badgers' James White is 25th, at 100.5 per game.
Between them, that's an average of 444.6 rushing yards per game.
Van Noy has been harassing Cougar opponents since 2010, and he's doing it again this season. Even though opposing teams have focused on the senior linebacker, he still has 46 tackles, 11.0 tackles for loss — tied for 18th in the country — 11 quarterback hurries, six pass breakups, four sacks, a forced fumble and an interception.
He was recently named a semifinalist for the Lombardi Award, one of eight defensive players named semifinalists for the award.
Van Noy is especially adept at turning opponent mistakes into points. During his Cougar career, he has scored five touchdowns — two on pick-sixes and three on fumble recoveries. That includes a pick-six to open the game against Utah State this year. He's also registered a safety in 2013, against Middle Tennessee.
Wisconsin has its own standout wide receiver: Jared Abbrederis. He is 23rd in the country in receiving yards per game at 97.8 per contest, with 782 receiving yards this season. Abbrederis may miss this weekend's game, though, as reports indicate he is questionable with a rib injury.
If Abbrederis can't go, fans will still have the chance to see a standout receiver: Cody Hoffman.
Since he arrived in Provo, Hoffman has been a steady contributor in the Cougar passing attack. Despite playing with four different starting quarterbacks during his career, Hoffman has already broken the BYU career records for receptions and touchdown receptions. He is just 14 yards away from passing Austin Collie for career receiving yards.
With two more games of 100 or more receiving yards, Hoffman would also pass Collie for career 100-yard receiving games. And he is closing in on Curtis Brown for the all-time BYU mark in all-purpose yards.
No matter how you slice it, Hoffman gives the Cougars options — and a powerful weapon — when he is on the field.