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Why the Cougars are playing UAB in the Independence Bowl — and how they feel about it

BYU players, coach Kalani Sitake and athletic director Tom Holmoe talked Monday about facing unranked Dragons in Shreveport, Louisiana, on Dec. 18

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BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe and football coach Kalani Sitake answer questions during BYU football media day in Provo.

BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe and head football coach Kalani Sitake answer questions during BYU football media day in Provo on Thursday, June 17, 2021. The two spoke Monday about the Cougars’ Independence Bowl game opponent — UAB.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

If BYU football players and coaches are angry and disappointed about playing unranked Alabama-Birmingham (UAB) in the Independence Bowl next week, they did a good job disguising it Monday as they met the media for the first time since the postseason destination and matchup was made official Sunday.

IndependencebowlTV

Independence Bowl


BYU (10-2)

vs. Alabama-Birmingham (8-4)

Dec. 18, 1:30 p.m. MST

Independence Stadium

Shreveport, Louisiana

TV: ABC

Radio: KSL 1160 AM/102.7 FM


The No. 13 Cougars (10-2) were close to making it to a New Year’s Six bowl game, and had been holding out hopes for that kind of reward for having won 21 of their last 24 games dating back to the 2020 season.

But they spoke via Zoom as if the longtime bowl game in Shreveport, Louisiana, is close to the next best thing. BYU was contractually obligated to play in Shreveport if it did not reach an NY6, an agreement reached on Jan. 30, 2020, the same day BYU and ESPN announced they were extending their broadcast rights agreement through 2026 barring a move by BYU to a conference with a different televisions partner.

“As a program, we can’t control what everybody else says, but from the coaches, staff and players, we have tons of respect for this opponent and this bowl game and we are looking forward to playing the game,” coach Kalani Sitake said.

Offensive lineman Blake Freeland and defensive end Tyler Batty echoed their coach’s sentiments, both saying it will be cool and interesting to visit the southeastern part of the United States, try some southern cuisine, and face an opponent that is every bit as good as the opponent they thought they would face (UTSA), if not better.

“I think everyone knew, really, that our chances of going to a New Year’s Six were pretty slim,” Batty said. “Always hopeful, but excited to play in the Independence Bowl.”

“It came down to New Year’s Six selection (hopes) and we missed it by a half a yard.” — BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe

Added Freeland: “I had some high hopes, but I knew it would be a stretch for (NY6). … I know UAB is a solid, good team. I know they will be a great opponent for us to play. I am excited about it.”

At the time ink was put to paper in the months before the pandemic hit, BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe said he had fielded calls about BYU’s interest from a lot of start-up bowls and existing bowls and would always tell them to talk to ESPN because part of BYU’s deal with the broadcast giant was for ESPN to set the Cougars up in ESPN Events-owned bowl games.

But after he spoke to Independence Bowl executive director Missy Setters, Holmoe said in 2020 that it was in BYU’s interest “to create this unique opportunity for our football program and our fans throughout the South.”

An estimated 10,000 BYU fans showed up in Statesboro, Georgia, a few weeks ago to watch BYU beat Georgia Southern.

The Independence Bowl-BYU contract also called for the Cougars to appear in Shreveport in 2023 against a team from the Pac-12 and 2025 against another Conference USA team such as UAB, but obviously the deal is up in the air now that BYU will be in the Big 12.

BYU is contracted to play in an ESPN Events-owned bowl in 2022 if it is bowl eligible (six wins) and not invited to a NY6 bowl or the College Football Playoffs.

“By the time we got to the end of that (initial ESPN contract), and extended it, there were really no bowls that were left open,” Holmoe said on BYUtv’s “BYU Sports Nation” show Monday. “They were all associated with conferences.”

Holmoe said he talked to ESPN Events again this season and threw out the possibility of playing in a high-profile bowl if the Cougars were highly ranked and shut out of the NY6, and “they said their bowls were all slotted and that is how it would be. So we knew, kinda, that is how it was going to be (this year) before Sunday.

“It came down to New Year’s Six selection (hopes) and we missed it by a half a yard,” Holmoe concluded.

That said, Holmoe stressed that the Independence Bowl is considered one of the better non-NY6 bowls in the industry and the Cougars will experience southern hospitality at its finest and face a team that’s hungry to make a statement against a national brand such as BYU.

“They will be a very good team for us to play on the road, away down in Louisiana. They are not going very far. We are,” Holmoe said. “It will be a challenge for us to go in there and play against a really good defense that will attack us and come after us.”

Birmingham is a little more than a six-hour drive from Shreveport.

“It will be an honor for us to be on the field and to compete against a wonderful program like UAB,” Sitake said. “Bill Clark is an amazing coach. He’s one of the best in the business. I like the way he runs his program, watching film.”

Sitake said that when BYU was playing C-USA teams UTSA, Louisiana Tech and Western Kentucky last season they often watched film of UAB in those conference matchups and were impressed with what they saw.

“We just noticed their team, the athleticism and speed and the way they are physical at the line of scrimmage,” Sitake said. “It is a great matchup for us. Last year, watching their film, it is no wonder they ended up winning the conference championship. They have won a lot of games in the years that coach Clark has been there. … They have some great athletes and good-looking bodies.”

As for being dropped from No. 12 to No. 13 by the CFP selection committee on Sunday — which really didn’t affect anything — Sitake said he didn’t even watch the show on ESPN because he was either at church or watching players he coached play in the NFL on other networks.

“All I care about is who we are playing,” he said. “Once I got the green light on who we were playing, the focus became preparing for them. So I am not into the narrative outside of what I can control, and what I can control is getting the team ready to play.”

The Cougars are far from the team that started the season with a 24-16 win over Arizona and a 26-17 win over Rose Bowl-bound Utah, due to injuries, Sitake said. But he does hope to get several players back this week or next so they can play in the bowl game.

Most notably, he said there is “maybe a chance” that center James Empey (ankle) and left tackle Harris LaChance (knee) will be able to play. He said receiver Neil Pau’u (knee) and tight end Isaac Rex (ankle surgery) won’t play.

The good news is Rex’s injury in the 35-31 win over USC was the only season-ending injury. The Cougars met in position groups last week and hung out together and did some weight lifting, “but nothing too crazy,” Freeland said.

Next week is finals week, but Sitake said most of the players have gone through it before — like last year, when they downed UCF 49-23 in the Boca Raton Bowl on Dec. 22.

“Our focus has been to try to get ready for our bowl game after we ended the season with USC and now that we know our opponent we can get back to work and be a little more focused on the team that has tons of weapons and plays great complementary football,” Sitake said. “We are looking forward to being out there in Shreveport. You guys know me, I am looking forward to that good food out there, too.”