by Tyler Burgener
In honor of the first BYU media day in two years, here are some of the best BYU player matchups for each opponent of the upcoming 2021 season.
The Cougars still return a lot of talent, but the 2021 schedule is one that increases in difficulty exponentially. It will be tough for BYU to replicate the same success in 2021 with this being the case.
If BYU can stay healthy and win some of these matchups to be named, the Cougars have a chance to have another big season in 2021.
Week 1: BYU vs Arizona
Matchup to watch: Arizona WR Ma’Jon Wright vs BYU CB D’Angelo Mandell
Not many things went right for the Arizona Wildcats in 2020, but Ma’Jon Wright was a staple of the Wildcat offense. He briefly transferred to Middle Tennessee after former Arizona Coach Kevin Sumlin was let go, but decided to return once Coach Jedd Fisch was hired.
BYU cornerback D’Angelo Mandell has been a constant presence the last few years in the Cougar secondary. By all reports coming out of spring, he has taken his game to the next level. If Mandell and the rest of the BYU secondary can lock down Wright, BYU should be able to run away with the victory in the desert.
Week 2: BYU vs Utah
Matchup to watch: BYU SS/LB Chaz Ah You vs Utah TE Brant Kuithe
There are many matchups that could have been highlighted for this game but the matchup between Ah You and Kuithe could prove to be one of the more pivotal ones.
Kuithe exploded on to the scene in 2019 with great performances during Pac-12 play and has all but locked up a spot as a draft pick in next year’s NFL Draft. If Kuithe has a big game against the Cougars in Provo, it could be a long night for the boys in blue.
Ah You returns from injury in 2020 where he only saw time during the first half of the Navy game. He returns to the BYU defense fully healthy and ready to contribute in 2021. Ah You is one of the best coverage players on BYU’s defense, and will likely be used along with a couple other players rotating to keep the ball out of Kuithe’s hands.
Week 3: BYU vs Arizona State
Matchup to watch: ASU QB Jayden Daniels vs BYU LB Payton Wilgar
Jayden Daniels has been a revelation to fans in Tempe during his two seasons there. He has been one of the top quarterbacks out west and has gotten better every season. Daniels throws a beautiful ball and has plenty of options to throw to.
So why did I pick BYU LB Payton Wilgar for this matchup you ask? In 2019, Wilgar led BYU in interceptions in 2019 and terrorized USC QB Kedon Slovis in the Trojans’ loss in Provo in 2019.
If Wilgar can be a thorn in the side of Daniels and can help stop the Sun Devil running game, BYU’s chances are favorable to come out of this game with the win.
Week 4: BYU vs USF
Matchup to watch: BYU QB Jaren Hall vs USF LB Antonio Grier
Grier was one of the top tacklers on the USF defense that was abysmal in 2020, but look for the USF defense to be improved in 2021. Grier had two tackles for loss against BYU in Jaren Hall’s first start which came against the Bulls in 2019.
Expect Hall to be named BYU’s starting quarterback this fall. He will want to avenge his first loss as a starter when the Bulls come to town.
Week 5: BYU vs Utah State
Matchup to watch: BYU WR Puka Nacua vs Utah State CB Cam Lampkin
This year’s Battle of the Wagon Wheel will be an interesting one for both teams. Utah State is coming off a lackluster season, but is reinvigorated with energy from new Coach Blake Anderson.
The Aggies have received a host of transfers out of the portal and what exactly they will look like is still unknown.
A stalwart player that returned for the Aggies is cornerback Cam Lampkin. He was one of the best players on the Utah State defense a year ago and started as a true freshman in 2019. Lampkin also recorded his first interception against the Cougars in 2019.
BYU was also helped by the transfer portal in 2021 with their biggest additions being the Nacua brothers, Samson and Puka.
Puka is arguably the greatest high school receiver in the history of the State of Utah, and bringing him to Provo is considered a major win for the Cougars.
No one knows what Nacua’s role on this BYU offense will be in 2021, but he could have a major impact on the season if he lives up to the hype.
Utah State will line up Lampkin on BYU’s top receiver to try to lock down what projects to be a very potent Cougar passing attack.
Week 6: BYU vs Boise State
Matchup to watch: BYU DE Tyler Batty vs Boise State Tackle Uzoma Osuji
BYU dominated the Broncos in every facet of the game last year for their first victory in Boise against the Broncos. In 2021, the Broncos will come to Provo with revenge on their minds as they face the Cougars.
The Boise State offensive line did not live up to the billing in 2020. They were dominated by the BYU defensive line in that game specifically.
Offensive Tackle Uzo Osuji was a grad transfer in 2020 from Rice, but did not play as he decided to use his extra COVID year granted by the NCAA to stay with the Broncos.
His presence will shore up the offensive line for new Coach Andy Avalos as he faces the Cougars in the hostile confines of Lavell Edwards Stadium in October.
Defensive End Tyler Batty was like a gift from heaven to the Cougar defense in 2020. BYU had struggled to get sacks in the last few years, but Batty was able to make an impact in year one.
He exploded on to the scene in 2020 with three sacks against Louisiana Tech, but suffered an ankle injury that kept him sidelined the rest of the year.
The BYU defensive staff hopes that Batty can pick up where he left off in 2020. If he can, this would be the game to keep an eye on Batty.
Week 7: BYU vs Baylor
Matchup to watch: BYU center James Empey vs Baylor defensive tackle Siake Ika
Another game that is full of headlines for the Cougars is their first game outside of the State of Utah in over a month against the Baylor Bears.
Former BYU offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes and offensive line coach Eric Mateos will face off against their former team as they rebuild the Baylor offense that was stagnant in 2020.
The former protégé of Mateos, James Empey, will face one of his stiffest tests this season in LSU transfer and former East High standout Siaki Ika.
Ika transferred to Baylor during the offseason to reunite with former LSU defensive coordinator and current Baylor Head Coach Dave Aranda, and looks to bolster the Bears defensive line in 2021.
Still just a sophomore, Ika is as strong as an ox. He has the skill to blow up any offensive lineman in his path.
Empey has seen his fair share of stout defensive lines in his career, but this could be a tough task for him as he tries to protect projected starting BYU quarterback Jaren Hall as they try to stun the Bears in Waco.
Week 8: BYU vs Washington State
Matchup to watch: BYU DE Uriah Leiataua vs WSU QB Jarrett Guarantano
Former Tennessee quarterback Jarrett Guarantano looks to redeem his 2019 loss to BYU. However, he does so now as a Washington State Cougar. After a lackluster career with the Vols, he looks to revamp his career in the Palouse.
The last time Guarantano faced the BYU Cougar defense, there was an infamous play where BYU DE Zach Dawe threw Guarantano’s shoe after he was tackled on a play. When the red Cougars face off with the blue BYU Cougars this time, Guarantano will want his plays to receive more notoriety than his shoes.
Leiataua looks to make his mark on the BYU defense after several injury-riddled seasons in Provo. From all reports, he has looked good in camp and looks to be up there with his fellow BYU defensive end Tyler Batty.
If Leiataua becomes what BYU coaches and fans hope he can be, Guarantano will want to go back to the time where BYU players were just throwing his shoes.
Week 9: BYU vs Virginia
Matchup to watch: BYU linebacker Max Tooley vs Virginia quarterback Brennan Armstrong
The return of Bronco Mendenhall to Provo is not the only headline in this game. Who will get the win between the coach of the old BYU regime now at Virginia, or the upstart BYU program under Kalani Sitake?
One asset that could help the Cavaliers get the win in Provo is the arm and legs of their quarterback: Brennan Armstrong.
Armstrong threw for over 2000 yards and 18 touchdowns with 11 interceptions. Somewhat in the mold of former BYU QB Taysom Hill, Armstrong is a much better runner than he is a passer. That is why it will be important for the Cougar defense to keep him reined in with a spy.
One of the most athletic linebackers on BYU’s defense is Max Tooley. He has the athleticism and tackling ability to keep up with Virginia’s quarterback.
If he does, it could go a long way in spoiling Bronco Mendenhall’s homecoming.
Week 10: BYU vs Idaho State
Matchup to watch: BYU defensive end Tyler Batty vs ISU quarterback Tyler Vander Waal
Some may wonder why this is a matchup to watch because of the guaranteed blowout win the Cougars should earn thanks to the Idaho State Bengals, but this is not the Idaho State team of old that was the doormat of the Big Sky.
The Bengals were impressive at times, albeit inconsistent, in the FCS spring season. After being beaten down by the Weber State Wildcats to open the season, Idaho State stunned SUU in Cedar City with a last second touchdown. They were also able to get a victory against a nationally ranked team in the Big Sky: the in-state rival Idaho Vandals.
Vander Waal was an inspiration to his Bengal teammates. He was battling through injury and leading the Bengals to big plays throughout the season. Although the Bengals will lose this game, Vander Waal will want to make it as tough on the Cougars as possible, and he has the skill set to do so.
Tyler Batty and the rest of the BYU defensive line will have to consistently pressure Vander Waal if they want the Bengals to make a quick exit from LaVell Edwards Stadium. They are more talented and much bigger than the ISU defensive line. They will need to come out playing physical to make sure the Bengals never get comfortable while they are on the field.
BYU will win this game, but if they want to get some much needed rest after playing their tenth straight game, they need to bring the intensity to this matchup.
Week 12: BYU vs Georgia Southern
Matchup to watch: BYU linebacker Keenan Pili vs GSU running back J.D. King
After their first bye of the season, the Cougars will travel to Statesboro, Georgia to take on the Georgia Southern Eagles. It will be an interesting matchup that is reminiscent of the BYU vs Coastal Carolina game in the 2020 season.
The Eagles run the triple-option and are an explosive team that can be hard to stop if they get going. This game could be a trap game for the Cougars if they allow Oklahoma State transfer and star running back J.D. King to get going.
The Georgia Southern offense will look different this season without star quarterback Shai Wertz after he transferred to Louisville to play wide receiver. King will have to shoulder the load without Wertz at the helm and he is more than capable of doing so. He had rushed for over 1400 yards during his time in Statesboro.
Keenan Pili will be a tackling machine for BYU in 2021. He will have to bring that skillset for the high-powered rushing attack the Eagles bring to the table.
The difference between this game and the Coastal Carolina game is that BYU will have plenty of time to prepare for the triple option during the bye and game week. That does not mean it will be easy to stop.
If Pili and the rest of the BYU linebackers play their best game, BYU should walk out of Statesboro with a comfortable win. If they are lagging after some time off, it could be a long day for the BYU defense.
Week 13: BYU vs USC
Matchup to watch: BYU cornerback D’Angelo Mandell vs USC wide receiver Bru McCoy
This game will be the toughest test for BYU offensively and defensively. USC nearly went undefeated in 2020 and brings back a majority of their playmakers. That includes quarterback Kedon Slovis and wide receiver Bru McCoy.
McCoy’s impact in 2020 was relatively small with 21 receptions for 236 yards and two touchdowns. However, he has breakout potential in 2021. The former five star out of Mater Dei will look to improve on his performance and has the talent and physical measurables to do so. Standing at 6’3” and 220 pounds, McCoy will be a tough task for many defensive backs to cover.
D’Angelo Mandell also has breakout potential for BYU after a solid 2020 season and a breakout spring. He will look to be the lockdown corner the Cougar defense needs after the departure of Chris Wilcox.
Mandell has all the ability to lock down on opposing receivers, but McCoy will prove to be a very tough task. He plays alongside a bevy of talented receivers on the Trojan offense.
If Mandell and the BYU secondary can have the same success against USC in 2021 as they did in Provo in 2019, this could prove to be the game of the year that Cougar fans will remember for a very long time.
Featured image courtesy Jaren Wilkey, BYU photo