The 2019 BYU Football schedule can be an opportunity for a lot of wins for BYU this fall.
By: Ryan Teeples
ESPN 960 Contributor
The 2018 BYU football regular season is behind us. The Cougars finished two full games better than the prior season’s historically bad 4-8 campaign, and fans and media are already arguing whether the team’s trajectory is right and whether 2019 will yield additional marked improvement.
A quick glance at the 2019 schedule has some BYU fans fretting already. After all, it’s once again a tough slate for head coach Kalani Sitake, with games against traditionally strong programs like USC, Tennessee, and Washington. And with Utah State getting better along with a couple of other MWC stalwarts on the list, it appears at first glance the 2019 Cougars could be significantly better than last year and still struggle to maintain bowl eligibility.
This far ahead of the season team rankings are mostly silly, but SBNation has a formula called S&P+ which assess teams for the upcoming season and ranks them based on recent history, returning production and recruiting.
The S&P+ calculations placed BYU at #50 for 2019. Considering the start of the BYU season (and its historically bad offensive production) it’s not surprising the Cougars are where they are. Also considering the SBNation formula weighs heavily, and rewards heavily members of the highest ranked conferences (not to mention missionary effect on recruiting rankings), BYU will always be a little lower relative to its foes.
Six of BYU’s opponents rank higher than the Cougs in the S&P+. Two opponents are also ranked in the top 20 of the NCAA.com early rankings. But all told, BYU’s significant opponents for 2019 (excludes UMASS, Liberty and Idaho State) rank an average of 39 in S&P+ just 11 spots higher than a BYU team whose second-half performance shows an uptrend, especially on offense.
So while at first glance, the 2019 slate may seem brutal, at second glance, it might not be that bad. We’ll break down why.
Ghosts of the past?
Rewind for a moment to the start of 2016 where BYU looked to have a monumentally tough road to December with Arizona, Utah, UCLA, West Virginia, Michigan State, Mississippi State, Toledo, Cincinnati and Boise State on the schedule.
Going into that season BYU faced the 7th toughest schedule in the country based on Phil Steele’s Win/Loss method. In fact, all but two of the teams the Cougars played that year appeared in Bowl games the prior year. By all accounts in September, the Cougars had an uphill battle.
In the end, the schedule wasn’t that difficult. Arizona, Michigan State, and Utah State went 3-9 while UCLA and Cincinnati won just four games each. Mississippi State won six and played in a bowl, but finished just one game better than the last place team in the SEC. Utah, Toledo, Boise State, and West Virginia all had great teams winning nine, nine, ten and ten games, respectively, but the remainder of the schedule was middling to terrible.
2019 could end up being similar. While storied programs dot the schedule, the road ahead isn’t as formidable as it first appears. Let’s break it down.
Utah: #17 S&P+, #19 NCAA.com
The Utes return most of their skill players and are likely to be as good or better in 2019 than last season. They do lose three offensive linemen and a significant number of defensive starters but shouldn’t have an issue filling those gaps. This might be the toughest game on BYU’s lineup next year, and last year’s game was a thriller.
Tennessee: #21 S&P+
Coach Jeremy Pruitt is entering his second year as coach of the Vols after a 7-loss season this year in which he fired his offensive coordinator. That means in 2019 the Volunteers will feature a new offense, a coach on the hot seat and player disruption this off-season (key players have already left). The team is young and the roster is full of underclassmen, but with a new scheme and an early season date, this is a winnable game for BYU.
USC: #29 S&P+
Next to BYU’s second half against Utah, there may not have been a worse performance in 2018 than the Trojan’s on-field play. But Texas Tech darling and former North Texas offensive coordinator Graham Harrell comes in with a completely different offensive mindset and a lot of work to implement it. The Trojans must also turn around a defense that was middling at best this season. That said, the roster is full of talent and could be pretty good by year-end. Luckily the Cougars have the Trojans week three when they’re likely still figuring things out.
Washington: #15 S&P+, #14 NCAA.com
Try as they may forget, BYU fans will remember the woodshed beating the Rose-Bowl bound Huskies laid on the Cougs in Seattle this season. But that was a senior-laden UW team against a totally different BYU offense than we saw in Provo once Freshman QB Zach Wilson took the reins. On the return trip to Provo, this September 21st, Washington will bring a new starting QB, likely former Georgia quarterback Jacob Eason, six new defensive starters and will face a BYU defense that by year-end ranked 13th best nationally in yards and 28th in points per game. It’s still a major hurdle for the Cougars to pull out a victory, but nowhere near the task, they faced in 2018.
Toledo: #78 S&P+
The Rockets were a middling MAC team this year. BYU travels cross-country for this game against an offense that returns most players but a defense that will be depleted. It’s a game BYU should win if it takes care of the ball and gets the most out of its talent, but we saw an impotent BYU offense with dreadful play-calling lose to a MAC team in Provo this season. So it’s a game nobody should take lightly.
South Florida: #71 S&P+
BYU travels to pleasant Tampa on October 12th to play the Bulls of South Florida, a team that was 7-0 to start this season before losing its last five in a row. The team returns most of its offense but loses a lot on a defensive unit that handed out 30-50 point games like they were candy. It’ll be no easy task for the Cougars but they’ll get a USF team that has work to do to overcome the struggles of this season.
Boise State: #24 S&P+
The Broncos are coming off yet another ten-win season and are always able to reload. However, in 2019 Boise will have to replace its senior quarterback and two of his top receiving targets. Additionally, this game will be played in Provo against a BYU team that missed its shot this year and will be looking for revenge in a matchup that’s always competitive.
Utah State: #42 S&P+
The team in Logan may be the biggest wildcard of the 2019 season as it looks now. The Aggies’ offensive and defensive systems are up in the air as Matt Wells departure to Texas Tech leaves the team with a returning Gary Andersen. He’ll find there an offensive unit that’s gutted by graduation leaving sophomore standout QB Jordan Love without his trusted horses in the trench, and a defensive unit that’s similarly depleted but they do return All-American Logan Woodward who was one of the highest graded backers per Pro Football Focus a season ago. Though this game’s in Logan, it’s one the Cougars should be in the driver’s seat for.
Liberty/Idaho State/UMASS: Liberty and ISU come to Provo in November and BYU heads to UMASS a couple of weeks later. These are three teams BYU should never, ever lose to. Assuming the disastrous 2017 season was an anomaly, these should be the Cougars’ three easy Ws next year.
San Diego State: #54 S&P+
The Aztecs were looking like a team with historic finish in mind, with wins over Arizona State and Boise State under their belts in 2018 before losing four of their last five games. Injuries plagued SDSU much like BYU and have the team wondering if their 2018 start was just a fluke. They’ll host BYU on the last game of the season in a matchup that could have bowl eligibility on the line. While the Aztecs look to replace their QB and top receiver, BYU should see significant progress in their scoring over the course of the season and could be a clear favorite going into this one.
In the end, eight wins might be a possibility
When it all breaks down, the Cougars have three nearly automatic wins in November. To become bowl eligible they’ll need to find three wins among the games that are toss-ups or close lines, namely San Diego State, Toledo, South Florida, and Utah State. Winning all those games would be a big accomplishment, but certainly isn’t impossible. Winning three puts them safely in the post-season.
Then comes the games against the power programs. Utah will be a very good team, but BYU took the Utes to the wire last year and history says this year should be similar. Winning in Knoxville is always a challenge, but if there’s ever been a time to do it, 2019 might be it. A new-look USC in Provo is likewise doable. Boise State and Washington both come to Provo with new QBs which opens the door for Cougar victory.
While not easy, it’s not improbable the Cougars find a way to win one or more of those games and flirt with eight wins.
The 2019 BYU football schedule is full of college football bluebloods and high-performing G5s, but the Cougars will get most in a pretty good spot and could find themselves grabbing more wins from this schedule wins than initially meets the eye.