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PROVO — Spoilers or contenders, BYU could play a significant role in helping to determine the four-team football playoff field.
With a loaded schedule in their final season of independence, the Cougars could crash playoff aspirations of several teams. Opponents ranked in the first Associated Press Top 25 released Monday include No. 5 Notre Dame, No. 10 Baylor, No. 11 Oregon and No. 19 Arkansas.
At the same time, BYU checked in at No. 25 and could quickly vault up the rankings with success. Conceivably, by beating Baylor and Oregon in the second and third week, respectively, the Cougars might garner enough credit to be considered for a playoff berth.
To quote former Indianapolis Colts coach Jim Mora in his exaggerated, high-pitched voice: playoffs? Heady stuff for a program that is almost always relegated to second-tier bowls.
Believe it — on one condition. To get any run as a playoff contender, BYU likely must have no more than one loss with a difficult schedule that also includes annual nemesis Boise State, plus Utah State and Stanford.
"BYU, being an independent, really flies under the radar," college football broadcaster Barrett Sallee said during his show on SiriusXM radio. "If BYU runs the table, it is in the College Football Playoff, no doubt about it. Even if they have one loss, the landscape could shift in a way it joins that mix."
Sallee, who co-hosts a Sunday show with Andy Staples, pointed to BYU's record of 21-4 over the last two seasons. The Cougars return most starters on offense and defense, as well as the entire coaching staff without any change in responsibilities.
According to ESPN statistics, led by quarterback Jaren Hall, BYU returns 88% of its production on both sides of the football. The breakdown is 97% on defense and 80% on offense.
Likely only joking — at least to an extent, anyway — Sallee played the age card that traditionally follows BYU football when it has success. Taking it to the extreme to make a point, he said some of the players have adult responsibilities and a 401(k).
"If you have a bunch of angry 24, 25 year olds who have been in the house changing diapers for eight hours, getting on the football field and hitting somebody is like therapy for them," Sallee said. "I'm really excited to see what happens with that BYU football team."
Considering BYU has only two one-loss seasons since 1996, including the COVID season in 2020, taking on the role of playoff spoiler is the more likely scenario. Any of the four ranked teams on the schedule probably need to beat BYU to deserve playoff consideration.
In an article for CBS Sports, Tom Fornelli listed BYU as one of five teams that could create chaos in the playoff race. The others are Auburn, South Carolina, Kent State and Stanford.
"Like Notre Dame, BYU is an independent program that schedules well," Fornelli wrote. "Unlike Notre Dame, the Cougars do not have an obvious path to the College Football Playoff without doing something extraordinary. However, that difficult schedule means the Cougars will play teams that do have a clear path and they're a team capable of knocking them off course."
Since going independent, starting with the 2011 season, the Cougars are 23-27 against Power Five teams, but the program has improved substantially in recent years, which was proven by finishing 6-1 against Power Five teams last season.
"We have more talent and more depth at every position than I first arrived," said offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick, who joined the staff as a coach in 2018. "I can't speak to what went on before I got here, but I just know this is much better and deeper football team than we were my first year. I expect that to continue to improve every year.
"There should not be any steps backwards from here on out as far as our depth and our talent level. If we do what we're supposed to as coaches in recruiting and developing these players, we should continue to play at a high level in the future."