PROVO — Autumn never arrives in Utah County, aka, The Land that Time Forgot, without high optimism. This has been the case since 1984, the year BYU won the national championship.
Though championships aren’t an expectation anymore, they’re still an aspiration. Go large or go home. This year the Cougars have a football schedule similar to others they’ve had recently, meaning it is wildly uneven. They play rival Utah, ranked No. 25 in the USA Today preseason poll. They also play preseason No. 10 Wisconsin and No. 12 Louisiana State. Midway through the year they face Boise State, which showed up on the “also receiving votes” list, at No. 29. Mississippi State, another opponent, got enough votes to rank No. 39.
Then comes the part of BYU’s schedule known as “The Blind Side.” In other words, the side BYU might overlook in the final six weeks: East Carolina, San Jose State, Fresno State, UNLV, Massachusetts and Hawaii.
There has to be a trap game somewhere in that hot mess.
The Cougars open the year with FCS school Portland State, picked to finish seventh in the Big Sky. But opening games usually don’t lack motivation, even if the opponent is a small fry. BYU’s stretch run, though, begins Oct. 21 with East Carolina, rated 112th in Athlon Sports’ preseason power ranking of 130 teams. San Jose State is No. 122. Fresno State is No. 117, UNLV 105, UMass 128 and Hawaii 88.
In short, five of their first seven games are against top-40 teams. But this year they also face seven teams among the bottom 42. This isn’t BYU’s fault. Every year it has to settle for a hodge-podge of quality teams and spare parts. So naturally when punter Jonny Linehan was asked if he worried about late-season disinterest, he uncharacteristically lapsed into sports-speak: “I think it all comes down to having the right mindset, and the group I’ve seen this year has a good mindset. So we take each game as it comes.”
Offensive coordinator Ty Detmer went with the one-game-at-a-time standby, too.
Fortunately, Linehan quickly pulled out of the tailspin.
“No results are permanent until you get the result,” he said. “I think Kalani (Sitake) has got us focused on Portland State. We do the same each week. But yeah, it is tempting to fall into a place where people say, ‘Yeah, you should beat those teams.’ That’s why we try to stay out of the media and not really listen to the hype.”
So there it is. If they’re going places, the Cougars will have to sweat UMass as much as they have to sweat LSU. They need to worry about Fresno State as much as Wisconsin and Utah State as much as Utah. The real enemy late in the season actually isn’t East Carolina or UNLV; it’s apathy.
The Cougars have six straight weeks of games against college football’s flotsam and jetsam. Shortly before that they face Athlon’s No. 97 team, Utah State.
The always-fired-up Utah State.
If somehow BYU made it through the first half of its schedule undefeated, or with just one loss to a power team, it could start arguing for a playoff spot. But trouble comes in the strangest forms. In 2012 the Cougars lost to Utah, Boise State, Oregon State and Notre Dame — all understandable defeats — but also lost to San Jose State. In 2013 they fell to two-win Virginia. The next year Utah State, Central Florida, Nevada and Memphis — all mid-major programs — each beat the Cougars. Last year’s Cougars lost a lot of expected games, but barely beat Wyoming in their bowl game.
The work isn’t over when the glamour games have passed.
BYU is fighting for the best bowl situation possible. Any November loss would send the Cougars plummeting. So while there are clear marquee games this year, there are also ambush games that can occur after injuries and fatigue have taken a toll. Vince Lombardi said fatigue makes cowards of us all. But a lack of quality competition makes us sleepy. Meanwhile, Yogi Berra said it ain’t over ‘til it’s over. Don’t the Cougars know it.