Arizona quarterback Khalil Tate, right, stiff-arms California cornerback Marloshawn Franklin Jr., second from right, during the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 21, 2017, in Berkeley, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

SALT LAKE CITY — As BYU prepares to start the football season, the Cougars find themselves at a crossroads. Was last season’s 4-9 performance an aberration or is flirting with the .500 mark the new normal?

The Cougars returned to pre-LaVell Edwards football last season, losing nine games, the most since 1955. The nadir was the road game against LSU in which BYU never crossed midfield. All of this is bad timing for a team trying to make its way as an independent while hoping for an invitation from a Power 5 conference. Every year they have to wait for the invite makes it more unlikely, especially if the losing continues. They had enough trouble getting in a league when they were winning lots of games.

The Cougars have reloaded, but does this year’s schedule favor a return to form?

Much is made of their difficult schedule from year to year — head coach Kalani Sitake says to achieve a certain level of success, the Cougars have to play the best. Rating schedules is pretty much impossible until the end of the season, but so is ranking teams for national polls when they don‘t actually play one another.

The Cougars' schedule ranks 64th on southernpigskin.com. ESPN ranked the top 40 most difficult schedules, and BYU isn’t on the list. Athlon ranks it No. 15, noting, "The Cougars have another tough slate ahead of them, highlighted by five games against Power 5 teams." If ranking schedules were based on opponents' records from last season, BYU’s would rank second among non-Power 5 schools. "BYU’s (schedule) is like murderer’s row, as always," wrote footballscoop.com.

That’s probably overstating things. If you’re talking about next season’s schedule — Utah, Tennessee, USC, Washington, Toledo, South Florida, Boise State, San Diego State — that qualifies as murderer’s row. But this year?

The Cougars do have three games against nationally ranked teams — No. 4 Wisconsin, No. 6 Washington, No. 22 Boise State — plus the game against a good Arizona team and the season-finale against Utah, which rank 31st and 28th, respectively, if you consider "others receiving votes" in the poll.

That’s the hard part. Let’s call those games five losses for the sake of discussion and because it's realistic, although a breakthrough at Arizona would not be shocking. The rest of the games are winnable.

As an independent, BYU’s schedule is front loaded — most of the difficult games are early in the season because their opponents have conference games the last half of the season. Four of BYU’s first five games are against Big Ten or Pac-12 schools. The second half of the schedule is easier, loaded with teams that were once considered guaranteed wins (but not anymore).

The second game of the season is against Cal. If the Bears seem formidable, it’s only because of the company they keep. They’re a Pac-12 school, but the Bears have had only one winning season in the last six years. The game is in Provo. Let’s call this a W.

McNeese State — that’s in Louisiana, if you didn’t know (I didn’t) — is an FCS school, same as Weber State and Southern Utah. Let’s call this a W (ignoring last season‘s narrow escape against Portland State, another FCS school).

Hawaii has gone seven years without a winning season. The Rainbows have never won in Provo. Put this down as a guaranteed-or-your-money-back W.

Utah State, which is riding a three-year drought, couldn’t possibly beat BYU in Provo, right? Oops, they did it four years ago; the Aggies have beaten the Cougars two of the last four years. Put BYU down for a W anyway.

Northern Illinois is more formidable than BYU fans might realize. The Huskies have played in bowl games nine of the last 10 years. Six years ago they played in the Orange Bowl. They beat Nebraska on the road last season. This is a tough call. Let’s call this a loss.

59 comments on this story

UMass has a weak football program. Last season they won four games, marking the first time in seven years they have won more than three games in a season. One of those four wins was against BYU in Provo. Talk about embarrassing. The rematch is in Foxborough, Massachusetts. Hmmm. Let’s give BYU the benefit of the doubt and a W.

New Mexico State fields one of the worst teams in the country year in and year out, with a win-loss record of 38-122 the last 13 years. Last year the Aggies won seven games to secure their first winning season in 16 years. BYU gets them at home. Give BYU the dub.

That’s six wins, six defeats, plus or minus a game. That would qualify as a good season; seven wins would mark a significant turnaround.