One play. Sometimes all it takes is one play to change a game, alter a season or define a career. It might be too early to call BYU’s miraculous Hail Mary a play that dramatically impacts college football history, the Cougars’ 2015 season or the careers of quarterback Tanner Mangum, receiver Mitch Mathews and head coach Bronco Mendenhall, but it’s never too early to wonder where that 42-yard touchdown can take a program seeking it’s first undefeated season and national title since 1984.
Undefeated season? National title?
Overaggressive? Maybe. Maybe not. But let’s humor ourselves and look at how realistic of a shot BR-53 BYU has at the College Football Playoff.
BYU has an oftentimes overlooked advantage that other non-power conference teams do not: They control their own schedule. They are not bogged down by an unimposing WAC slate or falling victim to a schedule loaded with low-ranked Conference USA teams but instead have the opportunity to craft their own path by including just the right number of résumé games and wins over non-juggernauts-but-decent-enough-not-to-destroy-their-strength-of-schedule teams.
Here’s a look at their remaining 11 games:
There is plenty of weight remaining, particularly with road games against Boise State, sudden Pac-12 favorites and trendy playoff pick UCLA and two-time defending SEC East champs Missouri. Facing UConn and Wagner in October plus a road tilt at San Jose State in early November (aka Prime Playoff Résumé Picking Apart Time) won’t help their strength of schedule or public perception but, assuming they can grab convincing victories, those three games shouldn’t single-handedly (or tri-handedly?) demolish their chances. The playoff committee should also appreciate tricky road games against Michigan and Utah State plus notable home tilts against AAC teams East Carolina and Cincinnati.
But the biggest knock might be a game that’s not on their schedule and remains unobtainable, as long as they’re rolling solo: Conference title game. The conference title game has been a dominating point of discussion for playoff predictors, particularly after the Big 12’s debacle in 2014. Much of the title game talk will depend upon the résumés of other playoff contenders and is out of their control. We’re willing to bet that Mendenhall isn’t spending much time worrying about that…
If BYU can go undefeated against that schedule, we like their chances of being among the 5-6 teams strongly considered for a bid…but can they even go undefeated?
Rolling out of Nebraska’s imposing Memorial Stadium with a win over a team that is expected to compete for the Big Ten West title is impressive. However, they didn’t knock off the Buckeyes in Columbus, Crimson Tide in Tuscaloosa or the Ducks in Eugene. Nebraska is, and was never, a playoff contender. Maybe a 10-win team BEST case scenario but calling them a preseason playoff contender would have been ludicrous.
The heart-thumping victory also overshadowed a few areas of weakness for the Cougars. An injured Taysom HIll/backup QB or not, their running backs needed to take pressure off the passing game, but fell well short. They gained 27 yards on just 11 carries, and that’s including Adam Hine’s four carries for 37 yards. Part of the poor production lies on offensive coordinator Robert Anae and a mediocre performance from the offensive line while an additional part can be attributed to an above average Nebraska front seven. However, it’s still an area of concern, especially now with a freshman under center for the next 11 games. Losing freshman running back Francis Bernard for 1-2 weeks because of a broken finger isn’t a game-changing loss but it will hurt their depth against Boise State on Saturday. The Broncos gave up just 29 rushing yards on 22 carries and UCLA yielded 98 yards on 34 carries in their respective Week 1 wins.
On Mendenhall’s defense, the loss of nose tackle Travis Tuiloma for 4-6 weeks is devastating and doesn’t help a defense that yielded 445 total yards.
“Travis, I consider our best defensive player, our most experienced defensive player,” Mendenhall said. At minimum, the junior will miss games against Boise State, UCLA and Michigan. The returns of suspended defensive end Tomasi Laulile and linebacker Sione Takitaki next week should help alleviate pressure in the box with Tuiloma out.
The secondary, along with most of the defense, missed a ton of tackles and botched a few coverages. The return of another suspended player, safety Kai Nacua, should greatly reduce errors for a unit that allowed Huskers’ quarterback Tommy Armstrong to rack up 319 passing yards and exploit gaps most of the afternoon. Cougar fans should definitely be concerned about UCLA freshman Josh Rosen after he carved up Virginia for 351 yards on 28-for-35 passing.
Don’t let the excitement of Saturday’s victory cloud your expectations for BYU in 2015. They have plenty of holes but none so glaring that will prevent them from remaining competitive (or winning) in each of the next three weeks. Although it’d be irresponsible to ignore those late-season tilts against Missouri and Utah State, their dark horse hopes for a playoff bid ride on the next three weeks.
For now, yes, the Cougars have a legitimate shot at a playoff spot, assuming they can find an adequate rushing attack against Boise and don’t allow Rosen to crush their souls through the air. But because those are large assumptions but let’s talk again after the final whistle on September 26th.