No. 8 BYU begins the closing statement on its College Football Playoff case Saturday, hosting North Alabama in the Cougars' penultimate game of the 2020 season in Provo, Utah.
BYU (8-0) has not played a schedule conducive to playoff consideration in normal years, but the abnormality of 2020 could work in the Cougars' favor. They made their most emphatic statement their last time out, routing Boise State on the road, 51-17, on Nov. 6.
The game against North Alabama comes in the final week before the College Football Playoff committee begins releasing its weekly ratings on Nov. 24. The Cougars are scheduled to host San Diego State on Dec. 12 in their final regular-season game.
North Alabama (0-3), a Football Championship Subdivision member out of the Big South Conference, is playing its final game in an abbreviated fall season. The Lions may not be the gaudiest opponent for BYU's postseason resume, but in his news conference on Monday, Cougars coach Kalani Sitake offered high praise for their head coach, Chris Willis.
"He prepares his guys the right way," Sitake said. "He's had some really good mentors, and he's been at North Alabama a long time."
Willis' mentors include Mark Hudspeth and Terry Bowden, both of whom led North Alabama when it was a Division II powerhouse during the 2000s and 2010s. With Willis on staff as an assistant, the Lions played in 12 Division II Playoffs and in 2016, reached the national championship game.
North Alabama began the transition to the Football Championship Subdivision in 2018. The university opted for a four-game fall season in lieu of the Big South's spring 2021 season. The NCAA will hold its postseason in April and May; North Alabama is not eligible for the FCS Playoffs until 2022.
The Lions' truncated season has been trying, with the most recent loss a 24-13 decision at Southern Miss on Nov. 7. But Sitake cited their performance Oct. 3 in a 28-7 loss at Liberty, an undefeated independent program much like BYU.
"They held an explosive offense like Liberty to seven points in the first half," Sitake said. "You look at the other games, and they haven't given up more than 28 points."
In contrast, BYU is rolling up 45.3 points per game.
"What a year to play BYU, huh? What a year to play them," Willis said on his Monday coaches show.
"This will be the best football team I've ever coached against in my 20-something years of coaching," he said. "This is something you can look back at one day and say you were a part of, that you went up against a team of this caliber."
The Cougars' explosive offense starts with quarterback Zach Wilson, a budding Heisman Trophy candidate with 22 touchdown passes and eight scoring rushes on the season. Wilson went 22-of-28 passing for 360 yards and three touchdowns last time out at Boise State, and tacked on an additional rushing touchdown.
Wilson has thrown multiple touchdown passes in every game this season, and only been intercepted twice. North Alabama, meanwhile, has three picks in three games. Gerrell Green, who is responsible for one of the Lions' interceptions, also has two passes defensed and a forced fumble.
While North Alabama has been solid on defense, the Lions have struggled offensively. They come into Provo averaging just 49.7 rushing yards and 183 passing yards per game. They have scored a total of 37 points, and this week face a BYU defense that has held six of eight opponents below 20.
–Field Level Media