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Analysis: Big 12 entrance can’t come soon enough for BYU after another disappointing non-NY6 bowl bid

Cougars were served up a double dose of disappointment Sunday as they learned they will face unranked UAB in the Independence Bowl on Dec. 18 in Shreveport, Louisiana

Brigham Young Cougars head coach Kalani Sitake gives the fans a shaka prior to the BYU-Virginia game.
Brigham Young Cougars head coach Kalani Sitake gives the fans a shaka prior to BYU and Virginia playing at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Saturday, Oct. 30, 2021.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Sunday’s announcement that BYU will meet unranked Alabama-Birmingham in the Independence Bowl brought a double dose of disappointment for Cougars fans.

There’s just no other way to spin it.

It is just another reminder for the independent Cougars, who went 6-1 against Power Five opponents, defeated two conference champions and lost by two touchdowns on the Big 12 champion’s home field, that Big 12 membership can’t come soon enough.

Having been idle since their 35-31 win over USC on Nov. 27, the Cougars dropped from No. 12 to No. 13 in the final College Football Playoff rankings, another last slap in the face from the selection committee but one that had to happen so all teams competing in the CFP or the New Year’s Six bowl games could be in the top 12.

It’s tidier that way.

Rival Utah (10-3), which has been perhaps the most impressive team in the country the last few weeks and is headed to the Rose Bowl, basically leapfrogged BYU in the final CFP rankings, adding insult to injury — but, again, something that had to happen.

Cougar fans will point out how the Cougars soundly defeated Utah 26-17 three months ago, and how BYU went 5-0 against the Pac-12. A case could be made that BYU beat the best (Utah) and second-best (Washington State) teams in the conference. Injury depleted Oregon, ranked No. 14 in the final rankings, was a paper tiger and a shadow of its former self the last month of the season.

Teams evolve, and a lot changes in college football over the course of a season.

Injuries happen, coaches identity players who are better suited to their systems and game plans, and opinions change. Head-to-head matchups matter — until they don’t.

Truth be told, BYU is not the same team that dominated Utah in the trenches and made life miserable that night for Utes’ starting quarterback Charlie Brewer, through no fault of its own. Injuries suffered by the likes of linebackers Keenan Pili and Chaz Ah You and offensive linemen James Empey and Harris LaChance are evidence of that.

Hopes that the 10-2 Cougars were going to get invited to a NY6 bowl game were pretty much dashed Saturday when Baylor defeated Oklahoma State in the Big 12 championship game, a victory that ensured the Bears would finish ranked higher than BYU in the CFP rankings.

Baylor ended up with the No. 7 ranking, while Michigan State got No. 10, having secured that last week with a win over Penn State, essentially.

Selection committee chairman Gary Barta said on the rankings show that BYU would have had to pass Michigan State to get to an NY6 invitation. How close was it? We’ll never know.

But at least the Cougars will get to play a 12-1 UTSA team in the Independence Bowl, the thinking went.

However, that consolation prize — a very, very small consolation prize — went by the wayside when news broke around noon Sunday that a different Conference-USA team would face BYU in Shreveport: UAB.

Apparently, C-USA allows its champion to pick its preferred bowl destination, and the Roadrunners elected to stay in Texas and play in the Frisco Bowl in the DFW area.

“We … look forward to facing UAB,” BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe said in a school news release. “It has been a phenomenal season for our program. I am so happy for Kalani, his staff and his players and credit (goes) to them for putting together an inspiring 10-2 record in what has been the most challenging schedule in BYU football history.

“Let’s win one more and finish strong an already-incredible BYU football season, an incredible 2021 calendar year for BYU Athletics, and continue to build upon a very bright future entering into the Big 12,” Holmoe continued.

Alabama-Birmingham placed second in the conference’s West Division behind UTSA, and went 8-4 overall. The Blazers have won three of their last four games, and lost just 34-31 to UTSA, which was ranked No. 15 at the time.

The Roadrunners did not make the final CFP rankings; They are No. 24 in the AP survey.

The Cougars were hoping for a spot in the Fiesta Bowl in Arizona, where many BYU fans reside. However, that game will pit No. 5 Notre Dame vs. No. 9 Oklahoma State.

So the task now for coach Kalani Sitake and what has to be a bunch of crestfallen Cougars is to regroup, refocus and put to practice what they have been saying all season, that the next game is the most important one, regardless of the opponent.

“I want to thank the Radiance Technologies Independence Bowl for this invitation and opportunity to come to Shreveport to face a very good UAB team,” Sitake said in the news release. “UAB is very well-coached and has had a lot of success under the leadership of Bill Clark, who is an exceptional coach.”

You can bet UAB will be stoked to be facing the No. 13 team in the country a six-hour drive from its campus in Birmingham.

BYU remained at No. 12 in the Associated Press Top 25 and at No. 14 in the USA Today/Coaches Poll released Sunday a few hours before the final CFP rankings were announced.

At least the Cougars can’t complain about the television coverage. The game will be played Dec. 18 at 1:30 p.m. MST and will be televised on ABC.

A win could push BYU into the top 10 in the final AP rankings.

“No need to let any final rankings, bowls, etc., determine the season this has truly been,” BYU receivers coach and passing game coordinator Fesi Sitake said on his Twitter account. “Grateful to get another crack with these boys and another chance to show how we travel and hear Cougar Nation roar!”

And not just complain, despite more disappointment when it comes to postseason play for a team that has gone 21-3 the past two seasons.