BYU football: final schedule as an independent loaded with landmines

During spring training last March, football media day in June and preseason training camp this month, BYU football coach Kalani Sitake has avoided as much as possible talking about the players’ entrance. Cougars in the Big 12 in 2023.

“All of our focus is on this season,” Sitake has said repeatedly.

In other words, this is not a throwaway year. With so much at stake in college football these days — reputations are seemingly built and/or lost overnight — greatly impacting recruiting — Sitake’s program just can’t afford to. regress in 2022. The last thing the Cougars want to do is have the momentum that a 21-4 record the past two produced seasons slow down for a lackluster season before they finally join the ranks of the Power Five.

“I am totally excited about our schedule. I see a lot of opportunities to make some noise before I go to the Big 12.” — Masen Wake, BYU fullback

It will not be easy. BYU’s final season of independence, which kicks off Sept. 3 with a tough, messy game in improved South Florida in the heat and humidity of Tampa, is fraught with landmines.

BYU’s 12th and final season of independence could be its toughest since 2011, based on how its opponents fared last year and how they’re ranked or projected to finish this year. College football forecaster and analyst Phil Steele says BYU has the 13th toughest schedule in the country.

Of course, teams go up and down throughout the season, and many don’t live up to expectations. Take last year as an example: Much was made of BYU going 6-1 against Power Five teams, but when the dust cleared, the Cougars played only the 63rd-toughest schedule in the country, according to Jeff Sagarin’s ratings.

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BYU quarterback Jaren Hall looks to pitch against Baylor on Saturday, Oct. 16, 2021, in Waco, Texas. The Bears proved too much for the Cougars that day, but BYU is giving them another chance this fall in Provo.

Ron Jenkins, Associated Press

Teams like Arizona State, Virginia and USC weren’t as good as they were supposed to be.

This season, the Cougars won’t face rival Utah, which was their biggest nemesis over the past 12 years, but will face No. 5 Notre Dame (in Las Vegas), No. 10 host Baylor and No. 19 Arkansas. , and will travel to No. 11 Oregon and Stanford of the Pac-12 in the season finale.

“I’m totally excited about our schedule,” fullback Masen Wake said. “I see a lot of opportunities to make some noise before I go to the Big 12.”

In fact, there are a lot of rewards on the calendar that athletic director Tom Holmoe has been building since 2013, but also a lot of rewards.

“All I’m focused on is making sure we perform to the best of our ability. That is all. I can’t control anything other than that,” Sitake said in June. “I feel like if we can do that and make sure our players perform at their best, we’ll have a very good chance of having a successful season, like LaVell (Edwards) used to say.”

Another scheduling issue to worry about: BYU plays 10 straight weeks before getting its first and only bye in 2022. Its depth, which has been a priority since the 2021 season ended with a thud in a 31-28 loss against the UAB, it will be powerfully tested through that gauntlet of games. There’s only one dame on the board: the week after the break against Utah Tech on Nov. 19.

“We did it last year and it was tough,” tight ends coach Steve Clark said. “You do the best you can week to week, but it’s not (optimal). You try to monitor the reps of the guys, because you don’t want to wear them down.”

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BYU coach Kalani Sitake applauds and watches during practice in Provo earlier this month. Sitake likes the Cougars’ chances in 2022, that is, if his players are “performing at their best.”

In all, the 12 teams BYU is scheduled to play this year had a combined 90-63 record last year; Of course, future Big 12 foe Baylor went 12-2 (including a not-so-close 38-24 win at Waco over the Cougars), won the league and knocked off the SEC’s Mississippi in the sugar bowl. The Bears are projected to win the league in 2022.

Fiesta Bowl loser Notre Dame (11-2) had a strong season, as did Oregon (10-4), Arkansas (9-4) and Utah State (11-3). Boise State was a disappointing (for them) 7-5, but one of those seven wins was a 26-17 win over BYU that ended the Cougars’ New Year’s Bowl hopes.

“We haven’t really tackled the final season of independence (problem) head-on, because our guys understand that the schedule we have this year is no joke,” wide receivers coach Fesi Sitake said. “There is a lot of talk about the arrival of the first season of Big 12, and we understand it. We don’t blame anyone for talking about it. But we are more worried about this year; We can feel that in the energy and excitement of this season.”

When Holmoe built this calendar, the idea that it would be BYU’s last as an independent was more dream than reality. Oregon’s only game (OU will not return game to Provo) was announced in 2015. Baylor series was announced in 2016. Arkansas series was announced in 2018 (BYU will visit Fayetteville in 2023) and Notre Dame game in Las Vegas, for Of course, it was installed last fall.

Stanford’s four-game series was announced in 2013, but the Cardinal was unable to host the Cougars in 2020 due to COVID-19. The 2023 and 2025 games in Provo have been canceled.

“We’ve got some really good competition this year, and we wouldn’t have it any other way,” tight end Isaac Rex said. “We have some teams that we played last year, like Baylor and Boise State, that we obviously want to play again. But focusing on South Florida right now is key for us.”

BYU tight end Isaac Rex celebrates his touchdown with BYU wide receiver Gunner Romney in Boca Raton, Florida.

BYU tight end Isaac Rex (83) celebrates his touchdown with wide receiver Gunner Romney against UCF during the Boca Raton Bowl in Boca Raton, Florida on December 22, 2020. Both playmakers are back in 2022 and with great expectations.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Rex said he is well aware that BYU teams in the past have played at his level of competition.

“We traveled to some really cool places, which was one of the best things about independence,” Rex said. “This year, we can go to Oregon and we play Notre Dame in Las Vegas and we go to Stanford. It will be fun.”

The good news for BYU is that the Cougars should, emphatically should, have one of their best teams under Sitake. Led by returning QB Jaren Hall and consistent linebackers Payton Wilgar and Keenan Pili, BYU returns 80% of its production on offense and 97% on defense.

On where this team ranks among those involved:

“I think he has the potential to be as good as we’ve ever been. But right now, we’re not there, no,” Clark said. “We have the potential to be there. Two years ago our team was really good and went 11-1. And last year’s team was good too. Check back in a couple of weeks.

Somehow, the timing is not good for BYU. The Cougars will lose tons of talent after the season and enter the Big 12 game in rebuild mode to some extent.

The better season they have in 2022, the more guys will leave for the NFL after a bowl game that hasn’t been finalized yet but will be owned by ESPN. One of those guys on the fence is Wilgar, Rover’s linebacker returning from double shoulder surgery.

“For us, this year is more about not having failures,” Wilgar said. “Looking at the schedule we have this year, there are so many amazing opportunities to compete at the highest level. Being the last year of independence, the stakes are high and another opportunity to go out there and show what we can do.”

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BYU running back Chris Brooks walks off the field after a day of work Aug. 11 in Provo. Brooks will be called up to fill the void left by Tyler Allgeier, who is now a member of the Atlanta Falcons.

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