BYU football: Can Cougars get berth in a New Year’s Six bowl

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PROVO — After BYU’s football team practices on Mondays, offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes writes “0-0” on the white board in the team room to emphasize the Cougars are starting anew and nothing that happened in the past week has any bearing on the weeks ahead.BYU football: Can Cougars get berth in a New Year’s Six bowl

“We say that game is over and we never mention it again,” Grimes said.

Similarly, the No. 15 Cougars say they never look past the next game — a task that is difficult this year because everyone around them is talking about the possibility of playing in a New Year’s Six bowl if they remain undefeated and a few other scenarios break their way.

“We always say that our record after these games is 0-0. We go into the next game with the same energy as we (did) the first game. You don’t get a big head from the other games — you have to take it week-by-week and give your all to the next opponent.” — BYU receiver Gunner Romney

Some are even talking about BYU making the four-team College Football Playoff, but that is such a pie-in-the-sky dream for a team in the Cougars’ situation and with their massively diluted schedule that it is barely worth mentioning. It’s sheer fantasy.

Of course, everything becomes moot if BYU can’t handle business Saturday at empty LaVell Edwards Stadium against 3-1 Texas-San Antonio (1:30 p.m. MDT, ESPN2) as a 34-point favorite. The Cougars have to be careful to not look ahead to next Friday’s game at 1-0 Houston, after the other Cougars looked impressive in a 49-31 conquest of Tulane Thursday night, overcoming five turnovers.

“We always say that our record after these games is 0-0,” said receiver Gunner Romney after BYU waxed Louisiana Tech 45-14 last Friday. “We go into the next game with the same energy as we (did) the first game. You don’t get a big head from the other games — you have to take it week by week and give your all to the next opponent.”

Yes, but the rest of us might have to look ahead a bit, in the interest of staying interested.

BYU players and coaches won’t bite this early, but the goal in this abnormal season when their stated goal of beating their three main rivals isn’t a possibility — save the re-added Boise State game on Nov. 7 on the blue turf — should be landing a berth in one of the NY6 games not involved in the national semifinals of CFP.

That means the at-large berths in the Cotton, Peach, Orange and Fiesta bowls are in play, with the Rose and Sugar hosting the CFP semis.

BYU hasn’t played in a major college bowl game since knocking off Kansas State in the Cotton Bowl in 1996 as quarterback Steve Sarkisian (pictured) led the Cougars to a 19-15 victory. Some analysts are predicting BYU plays in the New Year’s Six bowl game this year after a dominating 3-0 start. Gary McKeller, Deseret News

Because it isn’t a member of a Group of Five conference, BYU isn’t eligible for the Group of Five’s automatic bid to a major bowl game. To get an at-large spot, the Cougars almost certainly would have to go undefeated.

Recent upgrades to the schedule — Boise State and San Diego State — and Houston finally getting to show what it can do are steps in the right direction. In that regard, Saturday’s third straight game with no fans at LES could be categorized as a trap game. UTSA should be better than it showed in last week’s 21-13 loss at Alabama-Birmingham with starting quarterback Frank Harris returning to the lineup.

The Cougars don’t just need to win to keep themselves in consideration, they need to continue to keep winning big.

“You know, we take it one game at a time, one day at a time, and now we are practicing for UTSA this next week,” BYU quarterback Zach Wilson said. “They are a great team. We can’t take anything for granted. … No one is going to get complacent. No one is going to look to the future and talk about what-ifs.”

The Cougars do not have a specific bowl agreement this year, but in January they announced as part of their deal with ESPN Events bowl tie-ins in 2020, 2022 and 2024 if they are not selected to participate in a New Year’s Six bowl.

BYU is contracted to play in the Independence Bowl in Shreveport, Louisiana, in 2021, 2023 and 2025. The 2021 and 2025 games are against an opponent from Conference USA and 2023 against a Pac-12 team.

So this might be the best year ever to get a taste of a major bowl, but which one?

ESPN’s Kyle Bonagura has the Cougars playing Oklahoma State in the Cotton Bowl at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, in his bowl projections after week 5. College Football News makes the same projection.

“We still have a lot to prove. There is a lot more football to be played and room for improvement between now and next week’s game. … We are not looking past anything, especially this year.” — Kalani Sitake

Now that would be fun for Cougars fans, although a best-case scenario probably involves the Fiesta Bowl in Glendale, Arizona, where BYU supporters would show up in droves if spectators are allowed by then. Is it realistic?

Depends on whom one asks, and how everything else plays out. It is still really, really early to be making predictions in what has already been the most unpredictable year in decades.

“We still have a lot to prove,” Sitake said Monday. “There is a lot more football to be played and room for improvement between now and next week’s game. … We are not looking past anything, especially this year.”

Also on the line Saturday is BYU’s best start since 2014, when it was 4-0 before getting upset by Utah State, a three-touchdown underdog. Before that, the Cougars’ best start was in 2008, when they were 6-0 and ranked No. 9 in the country before a 32-7 loss at TCU.

“Our guys realize that these are expectations that we put on ourselves, to be great, to have a dynamic offense,” said receivers coach Fesi Sitake. “Where we stand, and all the stats and everything, that takes care of itself. … Now that it is here, we say, ‘OK, we have talked about this. We’ve got to live it. We can’t change.’ The message is to stay grounded, stay humble, and keep working and if we keep our head down and work, everything will take care of itself.”

And the Cougars could be — could be — playing on New Year’s Day.