National media websites are alive with talk of the BYU Cougars eventually rising high enough in the polls to play for a national championship, but the Cougars may not get that chance--through no fault of their own.
BYU's two "marquee" non-conference opponents (scheduled years ago) have turned into terrible teams at the same time, with UCLA and Washington combining to go 1-7 so far this season. As a result, BYU's strength of schedule is suffering, and will only get marginally better until the Cougars meet Utah on November 22nd. After last season (and Hawaii's cakewalk to the Sugar Bowl), pollsters will take a much more skeptical look at any non-BCS team's schedule, and right now, BYU's schedule is not doing the Cougars any favors. More specifically, UCLA and Washington are damaging BYU's resume with every loss they suffer.
Interestingly, it's the Utes who threaten to steal BYU's thunder in the BCS Standings and on the national stage. Two of the six computer rankings used in the BCS Standings have yet to be released this season, but in the remaining four rankings, BYU is not showing well, while the Utes have surged to the top.
Week 5 Computer Rankings
Colley: BYU 19th, Utah 3rd
Massey: BYU 19th, Utah 4th
Sagarin (ELO Chess): BYU 16th, Utah 2nd
Billingsley: BYU 10th, Utah 17th
As you can see, the computers rank the Cougars lower than the popular polls, which is what happened with Hawaii last season. BYU's average poll ranking is 8th, while the Cougars' average computer ranking is 16th. Last year, Hawaii's final poll average was 10th, while its computer average was 12th. So, the disparity between the pollsters and hard drives is even more pronounced so far this season, in BYU's case.
Just for fun, I ran the BCS numbers using the Coaches' and Harris polls, and the four current computer numbers available this morning. Here's what I came up with (higher number=higher BCS ranking):
Note that my methodology is flawed since I used all four available scores while the BCS Standings incorporate six computer rankings, then drop the highest and lowest, leaving four total scores.
If you drop the highest and lowest scores of the four scores available (not advisable, since it creates too small a database), you get:
Regardless, you can see what BYU is up against right now. The Cougars' strength of schedule is negatively compensating for high poll numbers, while the Utes schedule strength is positively compensating for lower poll numbers.
Schedule strength and computer rankings will fluctuate throughout the season, and the number of games played currently doesn't allow for a complete picture or accurate statistical sample, but it's plain to see that UCLA and Washington may end up hurting BYU more than those two teams hurt themselves this season.
The above number-crunching is merely an entertaining exercise, because it's too early in the season to make an accurate assessment of the landscape. There's a reason, after all, that the BCS powers-that-be wait until mid-October to make their first standings release.
This week, Utah can get a significant boost in its schedule strength with a home win over an Oregon State team that just beat USC. BYU, meantime, plays at Utah State. While there are still a few weeks until the BCS Standings are released, Cougar fans should be prepared for the possibility that that the Utes (if they can remain undefeated) could be closer to BYU than otherwise expected on October 19th.
Of course, BYU needn't ultimately worry about the Utes as long as they beat the Utes in Salt Lake City. But, the Utes are quietly controlling their own destiny, and at the end of the season, their case for a BCS bid and/or a national championship berth would ostensibly be stronger than BYU's, should the Utes go 12-0. The reason would not be solely the relative strength of their team, but rather the relative strength of their schedule. Since wins over conference foes would be common denominators, non-conference comparisons will eventually separate the two teams, and Utah's win at Michigan, and a potential win over Oregon State would likely carry more weight than BYU's wins over Washington and UCLA.
Don't forget to check back at 10:00am for the Bronco Mendenhall Press Conference live on the ksl.com "X-Stream" audio channel.