After 8-0 start, No. 8 BYU plans low-key bye week amid virus

This is plenty of reason to celebrate: Zach Wilson and the eighth-ranked BYU Cougars are off to an 8-0 start for just the fourth time in school history.

And this is plenty of reason for BYU to be cautious over a bye week — surging COVID-19 cases around Utah.

The Cougars don’t want anything to spoil this party. So any sort of social scene remains out-of-bounds for fear of derailing one of their top seasons.

BYU already missed a game in September due to a small number of cases on campus. The Cougars don’t want to miss another — not if they can prevent it.

“You see there are parties all over campus but we’re trying to stay away from that. We’re trying to keep this thing going,” said tight end Isaac Rex, whose team returns to action Nov. 21 by hosting North Alabama. “We’re 8-0. We’re a top-10 team. We don’t want any chances of getting the virus. We could still get it and it may happen, but we’re going to take every precaution possible that we don’t get it.”

With cases spiking around the state, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert recently declared a state of emergency. Among the measures implemented were a statewide mask mandate and more testing.

The new Utah rules also call for a two-week pause on extracurricular activities including athletic events, with the exception of high school championship games and intercollegiate athletic events — as long as testing and social distancing guidelines are adhered to.

Still, anything can happen.

Up the road from Provo in Salt Lake City, a rise in positive cases at Utah forced the Pac-12 Conference to cancel the Utes’ season-opening game against Arizona last Saturday. Utah’s game at UCLA also was pushed back from Friday to Saturday.

It’s all part of navigating through a challenging season. It’s why BYU coach Kalani Sitake stresses over and over to savor each moment.

“The emotions are magnified because of the threat of not having it,” Sitake said. “You don’t take things for granted.”

BYU attempted to schedule a game for this week, but it didn’t pan out. So the Cougars plan to get plenty of rest and review film before facing North Alabama at LaVell Edwards Stadium, where there may or may not be some fans depending on protocols.

They’ll try to extend their record to 9-0 and join the 2001, 1984 and 1979 teams in achieving a rare start.

On Nov. 24, the College Football Playoff rankings will be released for the first time this season. The Cougars, who play as an independent, could be in line at the end of the season for a New Year’s Six bowl matchup. And if things really break right, maybe even among the four semifinalists.

The thing holding them back remains their strength of schedule, with their best win so far on the road over a then-ranked Boise State squad last weekend. BYU’s game at Army on Sept. 19 was postponed due to the virus.

After North Alabama, the Cougars have another layoff before hosting San Diego State on Dec. 12. They’re still hoping to work in another opponent, maybe a top-notch program to boost their profile for the playoff committee.

“We want to compete with anybody we can and get as many opportunities as we can,” receiver Gunner Romney said. “Everybody would be really excited to have more added.”

Plus, it’s even more of a chance to showcase an offense led by Wilson, who’s being hyped for the Heisman Trophy. He’s currently tied for No. 1 in passing TDs (22) and second in yards passing (2,512).

“He’s leading us to an amazing year,” Rex said. “Everyone wants Zach to win the Heisman. We’re going to help him get there along the way.”

Wilson and the BYU offense are clicking along and rank in the top 10 in everything from first downs to total offense.

“We try to be the most reliable team out there and also the most violent team out there,” said left tackle Brady Christensen, who has been added to the Outland Trophy watch list. “The fact we have both right now is a huge contributor to our success.”

To keep the success rolling, Sitake is preaching to his team to remain hyper-vigilant with the virus.

Even that’s no guarantee.

“You can wear a mask, you can social distance, you can do everything right and this virus has shown it doesn’t really matter sometimes. You can still pick it up and still test positive,” Sitake said. “In the world of college football right now, you have to deal with a lot of different things.”

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