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Just how hard is BYU's 2016 football schedule?

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Let's take a closer look at the math

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One of the potential reasons for skepticism about the 2016 BYU football team could be their schedule. After all, it's full of multiple Power Five programs, mid-majors that made bowl games, and in terms of pure Q-score, it's probably the toughest schedule BYU has ever played.

We've already written about how BYU is behind the eight-ball a little bit on the recruiting front when it comes to its 2016 foes. But that only tells us part of the picture. After all, kids transfer, some don't pan out, some low three-stars become major contributors, etc. Are there other metrics to help evaluate the schedule, besides star rankings and pure brand name?

One might be the new S&P+ preseason projections, which came out today. Those who regularly read SB Nation stories have probably at least heard of the S&P+, which is an advanced stats tool that evaluates teams on a per-play basis, and adjusted for opponent, which gives a more complete picture of how good a particular offense or defense is. Since we don't have any actual 2016 data to crunch yet, preseason predictions were made, using a team's five-year performance in the S&P+, their recruiting, and their returning production.

BYU is projected as 35th in these rankings, which seems reasonable. BYU has been performing at around a 25-40ish level for the past several years, after all. But what about the rest of their 2016 schedule? Here's where everybody else fits in right now:

Team Name S&P+ ranking
vs Arizona 64
at Utah 39
UCLA 12
vs WVU 33
Toledo 58
at Michigan State 22
Mississippi State 21
at Boise State 36
at Cincinnati 70
UMass 127
Utah State 73

I didn't bother including Southern Utah, since they're not included in the S&P+, and BYU should be projected to beat them by four or more touchdowns either way. By these numbers, there are three games where BYU should be a real underdog (UCLA, at Michigan State, Mississippi State), three that are close to toss-ups (at Utah, vs WVU, at Boise State), and five others were BYU should be favorites, plus Southern Utah. Even if BYU struggles in the toss-up games, that still looks like a schedule for a team that should make a bowl game, probably with a little room to spare.

If you want to take the optimistic view, you can probably talk yourself into a win in virtually all of these games. Utah is replacing the engine of their offense, plus some excellent linebackers, and hey, isn't BYU due? Michigan State and Mississippi State are replacing QBs (and Sparty is losing some outstanding offensive linemen and almost certainly will be playing a true freshman at wideout). UCLA returns an #elite QB, but loses nearly everybody else from a team that BYU almost beat, on the road, last season. WVU's replacing big chunks of their secondary. Toledo has a new coach. Nobody on this list, in a vacuum, looks unbeatable.

Of course, you could just as easily talk yourself into a more skeptical view. BYU's coaching staff is nearly all new, and mostly inexperienced, a potential red flag in a year where the Cougars could be playing a lot of close games. The baseline talent level at UCLA and both MSUs is much higher than BYU's. Utah is in BYU's head and could have a really exciting new QB. The Arizona game is still in Arizona, and the Wildcats bring back key pieces of what should be an exciting offense. Cincinnati still has a five-star QB, and played BYU tough the year before. Toledo has been consistently very good for a MAC team, and could catch BYU tired and injured. If depth becomes an issue, things could get out of hand in a hurry.

So that leaves a pretty wide swath of possibilities, from "win 8 to 10 games against a competitive schedule with a new coaching staff to finish in the Top 25" to "miss a bowl game for the first time in years". My gut is that the truth is somewhere between those two scenarios, but there's a long offseason ahead of us, and maybe I'll change my mind a few more times between now and fall camp.

Either way, the 2016 season should be interesting and challenging on a number of levels. It still might end up being the hardest schedule BYU has ever faced. But if some early math is on the money, it might not *quite* be as tough as we thought it might be. And that's probably good news for BYU.