PROVO — If there’s one thing BYU does well, it’s getting out the word. The university is a lot of things, but shy isn’t one of them.
On Tuesday the Cougar football program took the initiative, as always, holding its media day ahead of everyone else. There was the requisite mix of reporters, bloggers, coaches, players and support personnel.
There was also the usual optimism.
No school holds a media day predicting failure.
Among the many things discussed was an extension of BYU’s contract with ESPN, the bowl situation, Kalani Sitake’s job performance and, oh yes, the schedule.
You’ve heard about that.
It’s only the highest-profile schedule in school history. In 2019, the Cougars play a biggie-sized chunk of the Pac-12, a storied program from the Southeastern Conference, and rivals Boise State and Utah State.
“A lot of people say they're tough (games), but I think it's exciting as a player,” Sitake said to ESPN personality Trevor Matich, who preceded Sitake as a BYU player. “Trevor and I would have loved to play these types of games. And, you know, I think it's going to really build our team and our program.”
That is what they asked for when the Cougars went independent and this is what they get: Utah, Tennessee, USC, Washington, Boise State, Utah State, South Florida and San Diego State. The rest of this year’s schedule is whatever they could round up: Toledo, Liberty, Idaho State and UMass.
One thing is almost a surety with this year’s Cougars: They’ll need to win their iffy games to get bowl eligible.
No matter how far BYU goes down Independence Road — which currently seems endless — the Cougars have never failed to draw interest. Attendance waxes and wanes and small bowl games are the norm, but they’re still the Cougs and it’s still ESPN and BYUtv.
You could put their games on at 3 a.m. in July and people would watch.
Part of that is because BYU is still delivering games people want to see. Which is where athletic director Tom Holmoe comes in. Some blame him for leading BYU into independence. They say if he would rejoin the Mountain West, or hook up with the American Athletic Conference, there could be championships and New Year’s Six bowls to pursue, per Boise State.
That’s all true.
But Holmoe so far has preferred his current course, i.e. loading up with name schools through the first part of the season and using November for bowl practice.
Holmoe said via a recorded interview that there will be a contract extension with ESPN but it hasn’t been signed due to details with bowl tie-ins. The new agreement, Holmoe says, might be different than the original.
“It looks like this time around, maybe we have some primary (bowl) games, that will be known. But there's some nuances that we could try to get out of — maybe some of those primaries — and if we have an opportunity, to get into a secondary bowl.”
His point is that if one of the power conferences can’t fill a slot at a larger bowl, BYU might slip in.
Although a few years ago there were predictions the Cougars’ scheduling success would slowly die, that hasn’t materialized. Last year BYU had the 61st-best schedule in the country, according to teamrankings.com. That’s about middle of the pack among FBS schools, and ahead of such major conference programs as Arizona (62), Arkansas (63), Rutgers (66), Oregon State (68) and Louisville (75). Utah’s schedule rated 32nd and Utah State’s 67th.
In 2020, the Cougars have Utah, Utah State, Michigan State, Arizona State, Minnesota, Missouri and Stanford. In 2021 there’s Arizona, Utah, Utah State, ASU, Baylor, Washington State, Virginia, USC. In 2022 it’s Baylor, Utah, Utah State, Oregon, Stanford and Arkansas.
“Cougar nation is everywhere,” Holmoe said. “And now we try to put a great team on the field. You talk about top 25 — that's where it used to be, we used to start at top 20. And if you could get into the top 15 or the top 10, then at one point, you can end up No. 1 — which we did in ‘84.
“And so I know Kalani and his crew are looking at high expectations. It starts with the first game of the season against Utah.”
Not all the showy games on BYU’s schedule are at BYU, and their November schedules will continue to be piecemeal (hello, Dixie State, 2022). But you can’t accuse Holmoe of hiding.
It’s reasonable to expect the Cougars to play half or more of their games against good rivals (USU, Boise State, SDSU, etc.) or power conference opponents. That’s not preferable to playing for the Rose Bowl. But it’s still good news to Cougar fans, Cavalier fans, Trojan fans, Duck fans, Cardinal fans and Razorback fans.
And good news for ESPN.
Those are games people want to watch.
Going independent doesn’t mean going away.