BYU football had already begun preseason camp in August when the bottom seemingly fell out for the Cougars.

One by one, conferences began canceling their fall seasons or going to conference games only, and BYU, one of the few independents remaining in college football, was left with only three games on a schedule that was once being touted as perhaps the strongest in the program’s storied history, a schedule that included three Pac-12 teams, one Big Ten team and one SEC team.

“It’s been a roller coaster of ups and downs, just praying that we were going to play football this year,” BYU junior quarterback Zach Wilson said this week.

So when Wilson, or anybody else on BYU’s team for that matter, hears that the unbeaten Cougars haven’t really played anybody to this point, he has a ready response.

“Everyone would say that your schedule isn’t nearly as good this year, and I’m like, ‘Hey, we’re playing football. We can’t complain,'” Wilson said. “It doesn’t matter who we’re playing. We’re going to show that we’re a good team no matter what.”

The 2020 college football landscape has already been weird enough amid the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic, with conferences canceling their season and then reconsidering, games being postponed, head coaches contracting the virus, once vaunted defenses giving up yards and points in record numbers and teams playing in front of a smattering of masked-up fans in stadiums normally filled to the brim.

For BYU, though, it’s almost as if the Cougars have played in a vacuum to this point despite their 4-0 record, despite dominating three of their first four foes and despite Wilson putting up Heisman Trophy-esque numbers.

In fact, Friday’s road game against Houston at TDECU Stadium (9:30 p.m. ET, ESPN and ESPN App) will be the first time all season that No. 14-ranked BYU has played in front of any fans. The Cougars’ season-opening 55-3 rout of Navy in Annapolis was played in an empty stadium by virtue of Maryland state regulations. And their three home games at LaVell Edwards Stadium have also been without fans as a result of Utah state regulations, although BYU hopes to be able to have fans at home games later this season.

“It’s weird because you go to the games and feel like no one’s watching because the stands are empty,” said Wilson, who has accounted for 14 touchdowns and thrown just one interception in his first four games.

One of Wilson’s favorite targets, junior receiver Gunner Romney, said the Cougars have had to “create their own energy on the field” in games.

“It’s been kind of eerie and awkward [with no fans in the stands],” said Romney, who’s averaging 22.7 yards per catch.

And yet, BYU coach Kalani Sitake has seen the kind of spirit, commitment and edge from his team that should serve the Cougars well in a season unlike any other.

“We have to have that chip on our shoulder,” Sitake said. “That’s kind of how we’re built, and it doesn’t really matter what our record is or what our ranking is or any of that stuff. We have a lot to prove. That’s just our mindset here. … Our mindset is based on we need to prove something to people and prove it to ourselves.

“It’s not a disrespectful thing. We want a place at the table.”

If that place at the table is a spot in the College Football Playoff conversation should the Cougars go unbeaten — and only Clemson, Ohio State and Marshall have a better chance to go unbeaten this season than BYU, according to ESPN’s FPI — that’s more fantasy than it is reality.

The Cougars’ lack of schedule strength would be a deal-breaker in the eyes of the CFP selection committee, even though they were able to add Boise State and San Diego State in recent weeks to get to 10 games. But a New Year’s Six bowl game wouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility, not to mention earning the kind of national acclaim that has eluded BYU for more than a decade.

The last time BYU finished in the top 10 of the final AP poll was 1996 (No. 5), when LaVell Edwards was still coaching. The Cougars were 14-1 that season with Steve Sarkisian as their senior quarterback. BYU’s last top-25 finish was 2009 (No. 12).

So what needs to happen for the college football world to take this BYU team seriously without any Power 5 teams on its schedule?

“I think it depends on the way that we beat teams,” Wilson said. “If we’re comfortably beating teams and showing our dominance and showing our ability to put up a lot of yards and showing our ability to have explosive big plays, I think people around the nation will say, ‘Hey, this is a good team.'”

That’s what makes the Houston game so important, especially given BYU’s shaky performance last week in a 27-20 win over UTSA.

“We had a lot of mental errors and missed assignments and were able to learn from a win,” Wilson said. “It can help us put that chip back on our shoulder, that we still haven’t done anything yet.”

Regardless of what happens the rest of the way, Sitake said he is proud that his team stayed the course, never quit working and never quit believing there would be a season.

At one point, BYU was the only school in the western part of the United States scheduled to play any football games this season.

“This year has been so different than any other year, obviously, but the level of appreciation is what I admire the most from our players, that they’re thankful to be here and to be around each other practicing and playing,” said Sitake, who’s in his fifth season as BYU’s head coach. “There’s a different mindset, different perspective on things now because of the pandemic. I think it kind of brought out to all of us what matters the most.

“I just love that our guys love to compete and love to play the game.”

And given all the uncertainty and the winding road just to get to this point, Sitake has no interest in looking ahead and playing the “what if” game. At least, as he so appropriately points out, not when your mere participation in a game hangs on the next round of test results.

“Right now, if we’ve learned anything through this pandemic, it’s to focus on the here and now, on this day … because you don’t know if you’re going to be out of it tomorrow,” Sitake said.

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