PROVO — This is what BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall always thought independence could be.
And over the next few weeks, the Cougars are in position to earn significant national exposure and respect.
Fresh off a bye week, BYU is entering an intriguing November schedule that starts Saturday (1:30 p.m. MST, ESPN) against No. 21 Wisconsin. BYU’s Nov. 23 opponent, Notre Dame, is ranked No. 24.
“It’s really what we were hoping when we became independent,” Mendenhall said of the November schedule. “It’s fun to have had Texas, Georgia Tech, Boise State and Utah in our stadium. Now, late in the year as an independent, that we get Wisconsin and Notre Dame, that’s closer to what I envisioned at the beginning. It just takes time to get there.”
Two years ago, the Cougars' November opponents were Idaho, New Mexico State and Hawaii. Last November, BYU faced Idaho, San Jose State and New Mexico State.
Wisconsin — the three-time reigning Big Ten champion — is coming off a 28-9 win last Saturday at Iowa, which propelled the Badgers from No. 24 to 21 in the polls.
Both the Cougars, who have won five consecutive games, and the Badgers, who have won three straight since falling to No. 4 Ohio State, own identical 6-2 records.
For the Cougars, Saturday’s showdown is an opportunity to enhance their national profile against Wisconsin and first-year coach Gary Andersen, the former Utah State head coach.
“We’re going into Wisconsin to prove ourselves, that we can play on the big stage against a great opponent and against a great coach, Coach Andersen, who I like,” said BYU linebacker Kyle Van Noy. “He’s a good guy. He has great players. It’s going to be a good atmosphere and a fun game. It’s going to be physical. Their defense is physical. Our defense is physical. Their offense is physical. Our offense can be physical but also puts in finesse. I think it’s going to be a fun game.”
“I think it will be a great matchup,” said senior wide receiver Cody Hoffman. “We know they’re going to be good. They’re a big school. We’re just going to watch film, do our homework, and play to our strengths and abilities.”
Hoffman added that he is looking forward to playing on national television for the second consecutive game. Going into last weekend, the BYU-Wisconsin matchup was slated to be broadcast by either ESPN or ABC.
“It’s always good to play on national TV. That’s why I was excited when (BYU) signed with ESPN,” Hoffman said. “ABC is a big thing. Our game last week against Boise State was a big thing, too, because it was the only game on ESPN. Anytime we can get out there on national TV, we’ll take it.”
No, BYU doesn’t have a conference championship to play for anymore. But in their third year of independence, the Cougars have plenty at stake.
“The validation comes by playing well against the best teams on the biggest stages,” Mendenhall said. “Our whole schedule this year has been to increase visibility and exposure, and also I would say reputation.”
There’s been some talk that if BYU can win its final four games, it could be a darkhorse for a BCS bowl bid.
“That’s our goal to start the season, to make the BCS,” Hoffman said. “We’re always going to keep our hopes and dreams alive and not say that we’re completely out of the picture. We’re going to continue to strive for it, whether we can or not.”
BYU’s offense, led by quarterback Taysom Hill, has progressed exponentially over the past month.
“We know his potential. He works real hard,” Hoffman said of Hill. “It’s great for us to see all his hard work pay off. I know he was probably getting frustrated at the start of the season. But with his hard work now, he’s continually getting better every week and that’s what we’re going to need from him.”
Wisconsin lost wide receiver Jared Abbrederis in the third quarter Saturday against Iowa on a 20-yard touchdown catch. He left the game with a chest injury.
Meanwhile, the Cougars lost a pair of players during the bye week due to surgeries. Senior wide receiver/return specialist JD Falslev will be sidelined for three to four weeks after fracturing his hand during a team activity.
Senior linebacker Austen Jorgensen will be out the remainder of the year. He will undergo season-ending surgery to repair cartilage damage to his knee.