East Carolina’s visit to BYU on Friday, coupled with the Cougars’ humiliating 41-14 loss to Liberty last Saturday as a touchdown favorite in Lynchburg, Virginia, got us thinking.

Was ECU’s 33-17 win over BYU in 2017 the Cougars’ worst loss in their 12 seasons as a college football independent? Or was last week’s loss to the fired-up Flames the most embarrassing since BYU left the Mountain West Conference in 2011?

“Every loss is disappointing. They all hurt the same. But to have it happen a couple times in a row, it definitely feels like it builds. That’s football sometimes. It is not fun. But if it doesn’t hurt, you don’t love it enough.” — BYU quarterback Jaren Hall

Obviously, a lot depends on one’s definition of embarrassing, or of the word “worst.” For our purposes here, as we go about ranking the 12 worst losses in the independence era — which ends next year when BYU joins the Big 12 — we are going with the losses that did the most damage to the Cougars’ and their fanbase’s collective psyche.

In other words, which ones hurt the most? Our list, which can be found below, is mostly filled with losses that were to teams the Cougars were favored to beat, blowouts when the Cougars were supposed to be more competitive (such as that 54-10 defeat at the hands of the Utes in 2011), and losses that pretty much ruined promising seasons (see 2014 against Utah State).

Are we piling on? Perhaps, but consider what happened the last few times the Cougars went through three-game losing stretches like they are going through now.

In 2017, after they lost seven straight games and went 4-9, BYU fired offensive coordinator Ty Detmer, landed quarterback Zach Wilson, and hasn’t had a losing season since.

In 2019, after losses to Washington, Toledo and South Florida, the Cougars upset No. 14 Boise State 28-25 en route to a five-game winning streak that, in essence, turned around head coach Kalani Sitake’s tenure in Provo.

So if history is any indication, hope is on the horizon.

Will the turnaround begin Friday night, when the 4-4 Cougars host East Carolina at 6 p.m. MDT at LaVell Edwards Stadium? It won’t be easy. The Pirates are 5-3, have won three of their last four games, and have an outstanding, veteran quarterback in four-year starter Holton Ahlers.

“They are a really good team all over, in all three phases,” Sitake said. “It comes at a good time for us right now. So they have our attention. We don’t really have time to feel sorry for ourselves. We gotta get rolling and working hard and get back to our identity of who we are.”

That identity as a national brand and perennial bowl participant took a hit in 2017, but the Cougars recovered. It is taking a big hit now. After starting the year 2-0 and with a big win over No. 9 Baylor, the Cougars have lost four of their last six games and are now in USA Today’s Misery Index.

There’s not a lot of happiness in Happy Valley these days.

“Every loss is disappointing. They all hurt the same,” BYU quarterback Jaren Hall said after the Liberty loss. “But to have it happen a couple times in a row, it definitely feels like it builds. That’s football sometimes. It is not fun. But if it doesn’t hurt, you don’t love it enough.”

Added defensive end Tyler Batty, when asked if BYU’s national brand is being tarnished: “No. I think our brand is who we have been, right? And who we are currently. This wasn’t our brand of football. And that’s what is frustrating. And as we work to get back to that, of course we are going to see more success because our brand of football is a very successful brand of football. I would say.”

Speaking after the Liberty loss, Hall and Batty said the Cougars can get it turned around, get bowl eligible, and start building again for the Big 12.

“We still have amazing potential for the games down the stretch,” Batty said. “To not achieve expectations, our own expectations, that sucks.”

Said Hall: “Now it is time for a gut-check to really see the type of dudes we have. I think it speaks of the type of guys we have even better if we come out of this positive.”

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Some of the worst losses, as was the story last week in Lynchburg, came when the Cougars had a big target on their backs, due to that brand. Others came when the Cougars were blown out of games they were supposed to be competitive in, such as the Utah loss in 2011 and the loss to Arkansas two weeks ago.

“We are used to being the hunter and now we are becoming the hunted,” Sitake said Monday. “And the great thing about being the hunted is the praise shows up. So we know where (opponents) are going to be. We watched East Carolina play against UCF with the same type of mindset, that UCF is going to the Big 12, and they did a great job beating them.”

Freshman safety Talan Alfrey, who made his first career interception against Liberty, said coaches constantly remind the Cougars that they are often the biggest game on an opponent’s schedule. Obviously, that won’t be the case in the Big 12.

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“BYU, we know is a national program, and we have a reputation out there, and a nationwide fan base, and so they just help us remember it is an honor to play for BYU and just express gratitude to a lot of people that helped us get here,” Alfrey said. “We are just grateful to put on the BYU jersey and have our names on the back, and the Y on the front, and go play football.”

Said star receiver Puka Nacua, the transfer from Washington, when asked if BYU draws the best out of lesser-known opponents: “Our guys are ready to fight.”

Without further ado, here are 12 of the most disappointing losses in BYU’s independence, ranked in countdown style from 12 to 1:

12) Utah State 35, BYU 20 (Oct. 3, 2014)

Utah State Aggies safety Frankie Sutera (46) intercepts a BYU pass in Provo Saturday, Oct. 4, 2014. USU won 35-20. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

One of the most devastating losses in BYU history occurred on a Friday night at LaVell Edwards Stadium, partly because few saw it coming. BYU was 4-0, ranked 18th in the country, and rolling behind the outstanding play of QB Taysom Hill. But the junior left the game with a season-ending fractured left leg in the second quarter, and the Aggies took back the Wagon Wheel trophy despite being 21-point underdogs. Jim McMahon’s jersey number was retired at halftime, ironic since he was BYU’s starting QB the last time the Aggies won in Provo.

11) Hawaii 38, BYU 34 (Dec. 24, 2019)

The Cougars bounced back from inexplicable losses to Toledo and South Florida with a five-game winning streak powered by backup quarterbacks Baylor Romney and Jaren Hall, but didn’t have it on Christmas Eve against a former big rival. Zach Wilson threw for 274 yards, but was picked off twice and outplayed by UH QB Cole McDonald, who threw for 493 yards against a BYU defense that been mostly solid since the USF and Toledo losses.

10) Alabama-Birmingham 31, BYU 28 (Dec. 18, 2021)

Sure, the Cougars were riddled by injuries, playing without starting QB Jaren Hall and a shell of their former selves in the Independence Bowl, but more was expected in a bowl game from a team that had gone 5-0 against the Pac-12 and 6-1 against Power Five opponents in 2021. The Cougars are 4-5 since downing USC 35-31 in Los Angeles last November. 

9) Liberty 41, BYU 14 (Oct. 22, 2022)

Liberty wide receiver Noah Frith, right, catches a pass as BYU’s D’angelo Mandell defends during game, Saturday, Oct. 22, 2022, in Lynchburg, Va. | Paige Dingler/The News & Advance via AP, Associated Press

The way in which the Cougars lost to the Flames in what head coach Hugh Freeze referred to before the contest as the most important game in program history is what elevates this loss to our list, more so than the actual loss. Liberty improved to 7-1 and is clearly deserving of a national ranking. But BYU scoring no points through the final three quarters and giving up 38 unanswered points was not just shocking, but deeply embarrassing.

8) San Jose State 20, BYU 14 (Nov. 17, 2012)

The Spartans finished the season with an 11-2 record and No. 21 national ranking, so calling this an embarrassing loss for BYU might be considered a stretch. But at the time it seemed like one, because SJSU had posted just one winning season since 2007. Also, BYU was coming off a 17-14 loss at No. 5 Notre Dame and a 41-17 shellacking of Georgia Tech in Atlanta. Cougars quarterback Riley Nelson sustained a rib injury in the fourth quarter — after the Cougars drove inside SJSU’s 25-yard line four times in that quarter and scored only once — in what would be his final start as a BYU QB.

7) Virginia 19, BYU 16 (Aug. 31, 2013)

This loss was more shocking in retrospect than it was the last day in August for the season opener in Charlottesville. Taysom Hill-led BYU would pound No. 15 Texas 40-21 the next week in Provo and go on to a decent 8-5 season, while Virginia would win only one more game and finish 2-10. After severe weather delayed the game for two hours, the Cougars turned the ball over in the final minutes and the Cavaliers capitalized with a touchdown with 2:36 remaining to win despite Jamaal Williams’ 144 rushing yards.

6) Northern Illinois 7, BYU 6 (Oct. 27, 2018)

The Northern Illinois Huskies celebrate near the end of the game after Northern Illinois safety Mykelti Williams intercepts a pass by BYU quarterback Zach Wilson during in Provo on Saturday, Oct. 27, 2018. | Ravell Call, Deseret News

Zach Wilson replaced Tanner Mangum at quarterback on Oct. 13 and helped the offense rack up 474 yards in a 49-23 win over Hawaii, but BYU’s offense didn’t return after a week off and dropped a rare defensive struggle at LaVell Edwards Stadium to NIU. Freshman Skyler Southam’s two field goals were the only points BYU could muster as a MAC team kept them out of the end zone and held them to 301 yards on their home field. NIU had just 204 yards, but won, causing Sitake to say the Cougars “have to be more aggressive in establishing our identity.”

No. 5: South Florida 27, BYU 23 (Oct. 12, 2019)

Jaren Hall became the first Black starting quarterback in BYU football history, and seemingly had the Cougars on track to pick up a rare win in Florida before sustaining a concussion in the third quarter. After Hall left the game, BYU blew a 23-14 lead to a Bulls team that had lost 11 of its previous 13 games and would drop its final four games of 2019, resulting in the firing of coach Charlie Strong.

4) Toledo 28, BYU 21 (Sept. 28, 2019)

BYU knocked off Tennessee and USC in September of 2019, but a 45-19 loss at home to Washington signaled there was trouble afoot, and a late-September loss to the Rockets in the Glass Bowl solidified it. Toledo, No. 120 in the Sagarin Ratings, scored a touchdown with a minute remaining to make it 28-21 after Zach Wilson’s pass was intercepted and returned inside the 5-yard-line. Wilson suffered a fractured hand trying to make the tackle after the pick and missed the next five games.

3) Utah 54, BYU 10 (Sept. 17, 2011)

Utah Utes quarterback Jordan Wynn (3) celebrates with fans after the Utes beat BYU 54-10 Saturday, Sept. 17, 2011 | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Losses to the Pac-12’s Utes can never be considered embarrassing. But Utah’s margin of victory in the rivalry game, the Utes’ biggest since a 43-0 win over the Cougars in 1931, is what puts this memorable BYU loss near the top of the list. Few saw it coming. BYU opened independence with a 14-13 win over Ole Miss and a 17-16 loss to No. 21 Texas, but was flat-out destroyed by Utah after taking 10-7 lead late in the second quarter. “We were out-coached, out-played and out-executed from beginning to end,” said BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall.

2) East Carolina 33, BYU 17 (Oct. 21, 2017)

Sure, the Cougars were awful in 2017, but losing 33-17 to a one-win East Carolina team that was ranked No. 129, almost dead last among FBS teams, in the Sagarin Ratings was inexcusable, even if the Pirates at the time had a relatively unknown quarterback by the name of Gardner Minshew, who ended up in the NFL. The Pirates were giving up 50 points and 600 yards per game, but managed to hold the Cougars to 10 points until a late touchdown pass from Tanner Mangum to Matt Bushman made the final score “a little more respectable,” according to the Deseret News.

1) UMass 16, BYU 10 (Nov. 18, 2017)

There were a lot of lowly losses in 2017, but none worse than the setback to the Minutemen, a fellow independent that stunned the Cougars 16-10 in front of just 51,355 fans at LaVell Edwards Stadium. Down to their fourth-string quarterback, Joe Critchlow, the Cougars threw four interceptions and Critchlow was sacked seven times. The Cougars dropped to 3-9 with the loss, the first time they had lost nine or more games since 1955. UMass improved to 4-7 and snapped its 10-game road losing streak a year after losing 51-9 to BYU in Provo.


Cougars on the air

East Carolina (5-3)

at BYU (4-4)

Friday, 6 p.m. MDT

LaVell Edwards Stadium, Provo

TV: ESPN2

Radio: KSL NewsRadio 102.7 FM/1160 AM