It’s November, and things are about to become real for a BYU football team that is relatively new to this conference affiliation thing.
The Cougars (5-3) are set to finish out the season versus a slate of four tough opponents—all of whom are certain to test and reveal where exactly what type of team BYU coach Kalani Sitake and his staff have been forged over the course of the season.
It works in stark contrast to what Novembers have largely been about during the Cougar’s 12 years of independence, and that’s a very good thing.
Recent Novembers have largely provided the Cougars with weak opponents incapable of providing a true test of mettle for a team already locked into a minor bowl game to finish up the season. Sure, there were inspiring anecdotes on the rare occasion when Athletic Director Tom Holmoe was able to schedule name opponents late in the season, but those instances were far and in between.
In short, the story arc of every Cougar season through independence was severely lacking.
But not this year.
Indeed we’re about to find out what this Cougar team really is in the coming weeks, beginning with two road games versus West Virginia (5-3) and Oklahoma State (6-2) outlying home games versus Iowa State (5-3) and Oklahoma (7-1.)
Will the Cougars become bowl eligible and which bowl will they qualify for amongst the several options allotted Big12 Conference members? There are seven Bowl Games reserved for Big12 members with BYU still alive to appear in all of them.
Valero Alamo Bowl (Dec. 28, San Antonio, TX.)
Pop-Tarts Bowl (Dec. 28, Orlando, FL.)
TaxAct Texas Bowl (Dec. 27, Houston, TX.)
AutoZone Liberty Bowl (Dec. 29, Memphis, TN.)
Guaranteed Rate Bowl (Dec. 26, Phoenix, AZ.)
Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl (Dec. 23, Fort Worth, TX.)
Radiance Technologies Independence Bowl (Dec. 16, Shreveport, LA.)
So what can be expected during BYU’s intriguing and challenging November schedule? A lot of clues have been provided, sure, but for this reporter, these are the biggest questions I have about this Cougar football team.
Can BYU out-gain an opponent?
Since out-gaining Kansas by 15 yards in a 38-27 loss, the Cougars have yielded an average of 179.5 more yards to their last four opponents while still managing to overcome two of those opponents on the scoreboard. It’s a remarkable feat, certainly, and shouldn’t be chalked up to mere luck with the Cougars proving adept at capitalizing on opponent’s mistakes while coming up big during key junctures.
But it’s probably not sustainable. Okay, it’s almost assuredly not sustainable.
The Cougars are going to have to show strides offensively. Gaining just 300.6 yards per game isn’t likely going to cut it versus a formidable November schedule that includes the Big12’s top defensive team (Iowa State) and No. 5-ranked defensive unit (Oklahoma.)
The Cougars are ranked dead last in conference in total yards per game, so yes, the bar has been set very low, and with strides made in the run-game, things could begin to open up for quarterback Kedon Slovis in what has proved an unspectacular and inconsistent passing attack.
The return of Aidan Robbins appears to have provided a boost and a much-needed breather for true freshman LJ Martin, who has been taxed to carry just about all the load in the backfield for most of the season. It’s too much, even for top true freshman talent.
We liked what Robbins showed versus Texas last week, although it seems apparent his best work will come between the tackles rather than trying to stretch it laterally. With Martin expected to return this week versus the Mountaineers, it should present the most formidable rushing attack the Cougars have fielded so far this season.
Where’s Kody Epps?
So yeah, things are looking up for BYU’s lagging offensive productive, but again, the bar has been set very low.
One thing that has been missing is chunk-yardage plays and conversely the electric abilities of Kody Epps, who could go a long way in providing the offense with chunk-yardage plays given his unique skill-set. No one of this Cougar team provides the start-and-stop capabilities of Epps, who has provided just six receptions for 60 yards so far this season.
With his lower-extremity injury issues apparently behind him, look for Epps to show big strides beginning this week versus West Virginia, which should aid the offensive output considerably. Getting Epps involved often will go a long way in getting BYU bowl eligible throughout the final month of the regular season.
Checking it down
Maybe it’s just me, but it bugs me that Slovis doesn’t check down to open receivers in the flat more often—particularly capable receiving running backs such as Martin. I believe BYU could benefit quite a bit with a quick-hitting short-passing game, or at least by taking more check-down opportunities.
Yes, strides have been made in the rushing attack, but it’s still a long way from posing a serious threat to opposing defenses which should necessitate a quicker and shorter passing scheme in this amateur offensive coordinator’s opinion. But what do I know?
Defending the run effectively will play a big role in the Cougar’s success during the stretch run of the season, which brings the season-ending injury to linebacker Ben Bywater and continuing injury issues to defensive tackle John Nelson into focus. You never want to lose your strength up the middle, and while freshman Harrison Taggart has filled in admirably, the absence of Bywater could come to roost versus a West Virginia team that averages 203.3 yards per game on the ground, not to mention the likely absence of Nelson in this one.
A quick look at West Virginia
The Mountaineers have generally exceeded expectations this season, relying heavily on the run and ranking dead last in the Big12 conference in passing offense. It’s a team that has proven decent in defending both the run and the pass, ranking No. 7 and No. 6 in the Big12 Conference, respectively.
West Virginia’s second-leading rusher is quarterback Garrett Greene, which could cause plenty of headaches for a Cougar defense that has struggled defending running quarterbacks so far this season. The Mountaineers have also averaged 38 points per game over their last three outings, although those outings have come versus some of the weaker Big12 defenses in Houston, UCF and Oklahoma State. But still, they’re capable of piling on points, and all factors considered, the Cougars will have to be at their best to hold West Virginia to under 30 points come Saturday.
Score Prediction: West Virginia 31 BYU 27