The Daily Herald’s BYU football experts Jared Lloyd and Darnell Dickson weigh in on five of the biggest questions facing the Cougars this week:
1. Adding more games
1. BYU Director of Athletics Tom Holmoe teased the “scheduling gurus” on Twitter a few days ago by saying they weren’t up early enough. With so many college football games canceled due to COVID-19 concerns, how important is it for Holmoe to schedule more games for the Cougars?
DICKSON: It’s interesting because BYU has reached a point in the season where there is more and more at stake. Scheduling a P5 team is dicey for a number of reasons, but mainly because one loss ruins all the good work the Cougars have done so far. If Holmoe wants to go for broke and try to make the college playoff, by all means try to schedule one of the Pac-12 schools that has had a game canceled. But there is no guarantee BYU would get into the playoffs even if they are undefeated. A more reachable goal is a New Year’s Six bowl game. The more P5s that cancel games, the better the chances are for the Cougars if they reach 10-0. A New Year’s Six bowl game is a big payday and with little to no revenue coming in from ticket sales, that’s important to the program.
LLOYD: I’ve heard a number of observers and fans say BYU should be content to finish out the season with a likely win on Saturday and then with a challenge by hosting San Diego State in December. Their opinion is that it’s not worth the risk of losing and subsequently missing out on a New Year’s Six bowl game. I have to say that I absolutely HATE that mentality. This is football, folks! If you want to be the best, you have to be willing to play the best opponents you can. Yes, you might lose — but so what? If BYU lines up a good opponent and gets beat, then this Cougar team doesn’t deserve to be in a New Year’s Six game. But if the Cougars win that game, it bolsters their case to be considered as one of the top teams in the country in this crazy season. Great teams seek out opportunities to prove how good they are. They definitely don’t want to settle for anything less.
2. Reasons for BYU football improvement
2. Legit question from Twitter: With basically the same personnel and coaches as last year’s 7-6 squad, why is BYU football so much more successful in 2020?
LLOYD: I talked to a group of Cougar fans last January and some were vehemently disappointed that BYU had chosen to continue with the same coaching staff. My response was that a head coach needs about five years to get his guys in place in Provo because of the lag created by so many athletes serving two-year missions for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I stated that in my opinion this was a year that we had to see some payoff or it would raise questions about the direction of the program — and we are getting that payoff. Kalani Sitake and his staff invested heavily in younger players over the past few years and there were certainly some growing pains along the way. But now the pieces are coming together as the players have a better comprehension of what needs to be done to be successful. That’s why this Cougar squad is dominating in a lot of areas of the game.
DICKSON: First off, players do get better. That’s a scientific fact, or something like that. Obviously, the original schedule would have tested the Cougars more but they have rolled through their opponents in 2020. A healthy Zach Wilson has been a big factor plus healthy defensive players (Chris Wilcox, Troy Warner, Zayne Anderson) have made a difference. The coaching staff has matured as well. Another big factor is that this team has been able to be together since July doing voluntary workouts. As a more mature team, they have benefited from the consistency of practicing together. I’ve always said the difference between a good college football team and a mediocre one is a very thin line. I would say the Cougars have crossed that line in 2020.
3. NCAA basketball tournament decision
3. The NCAA has decided to host the entire men’s basketball tournament in Indianapolis in the spring because of COVID-19 concerns. Good or bad decision?
DICKSON: Under the circumstances, it seems prudent. It is easier to control the environment in one city than in 16 cities. A central location also eliminates a lot of the issues with matchups. No need to stay regional or worry about a home court advantage for a high seed. I think it evens the playing field and will make for a very exciting tournament. If there are no fans in the stands at that point, we have much bigger problems than where to hold a basketball tournament.
LLOYD: On the one hand, I would love to see the country be at a point where a normal tournament would be realistic despite the COVID-19 pandemic. That’s not out of the question, depending on the effectiveness and distribution of the vaccines that are getting close to being ready. But it’s impossible to bet on that being the reality in four months, so I think the NCAA is smart to plan for an alternative where they could likely still play the games even if the pandemic is still a big concern. With active testing and careful restrictions, it seems likely that such a tournament “bubble” would have a much better chance of success. It brings a new meaning to the standard March Madness term, “Bubble Watch,” doesn’t it?
4. To stay or go
4. Since the NCAA has granted college football players an extra year because of the coronavirus, which Cougar do you think would benefit most from one more season in Provo: Zach Wilson, Khyiris Tonga, Matt Bushman or Troy Warner?
LLOYD: I think all of them could benefit from more time at the college level but I also completely understand the desire they have to take advantage of opportunities at the next level. It depends on where they are at in their long-term goals. I think Wilson is the most pro-ready at the moment because of his work at developing his mental game. That will serve him well. I think Tonga and Warner both still have tremendous upside that could be developed either in college or in the pros, depending on the situation. But I’m going to answer the question by selecting Bushman because he hasn’t had a chance to show what he can do this year. I feel like if he gets a chance to be on the field with an offense that is clicking on all cylinders like BYU is this season, he will really get a ton of attention from pro scouts.
DICKSON: I think all of them should go pro. Now’s the time to get the most attention while the Cougars are doing well. But if I had to choose one, I would say Troy Warner. He’s really starting to come into his own as a safety but I think another year could help him improve his stock from a possible late-round pick to a third- or fourth-round pick. And it can’t hurt that his older brother Fred is the best middle linebacker in the NFL, right?
5. Hypothetical Pac 12 finish
5. OK, we’ll play the game: Where would this year’s BYU football team finish in the Pac-12?
DICKSON: I think BYU has proven over the years that it can be a competitive program in most leagues. There is a pretty big difference between being competitive and being at the top. This year, I would say the Cougars could compete for the Pac-12 title. They have enough talent and depth to stay with the Washingtons and USCs of that league. This season, I believe BYU can play with anybody. Yes, even Alabama, Notre Dame or Ohio State. I’m not saying the Cougars would beat those teams. I’m saying they could hang in with those teams and beat them if a few breaks went their way.
LLOYD: This is a question that is almost impossible to answer because the Pac-12 has given us such a small sample size to work with. In the games I’ve seen, I think BYU would likely defeat the bottom eight teams. Games against Utah (who has yet to take the field), Colorado and USC might be more challenging but they certainly haven’t shown the type of dominance that would truly be worrisome. The biggest question is whether the Cougars could knock off Oregon, who won the Rose Bowl game last year and has looked good in wins over Stanford and Washington State. I think it would be a toss-up, which is about what you would expect from teams ranked at No. 8 (BYU) and No. 11 in the country. Either way, I would say BYU is likely at worst in the top three of the Pac-12 this year which would be pretty impressive.