Twelve years is a long time to be wishing for something to come true. In fact, most of us would probably lose interest somewhere along the way or get distracted and start wishing for something else.
The Cougars locked their sights on joining a Power Five conference the moment they broke from the Mountain West in 2011 and never blinked. Sure, there were ups and downs and periods of discouragement, even some envy for the team up north, but they never lost focus.
When the Big 12 called on Sept. 10, 2021, athletic director Tom Holmoe answered and in a matter of minutes, BYU was all-in — in all sports — except for men’s volleyball. For the Cougars and its national fan base, the “Day of Deliverance” had finally come and there was little concern for the “Day of Reckoning” that was coming with it.
That day is here. There are no more obstacles or opponents standing in the way. It’s all about stepping up or getting beaten down.
The Cougars officially join the Big 12 on July 1 and when they charge out of the locker room as a P5 program at LaVell Edwards Stadium on Sept. 3 to face Sam Houston, there will be a Big 12 logo painted on both ends of the field and Big 12 money paying for a much bigger fireworks show overhead.
Yes, big things are approaching. But going bigger doesn’t mean it’s easier. In fact, it’s just the opposite. The 2023 schedule, which is targeted for a Feb. 1 release, will challenge BYU like never before, and it will require an offseason like never before — one where the Cougars must be resolute in all that they do.
As BYU says goodbye to independence and 2022, here are some resolutions for the new year ahead in the Big 12.
Get bowl eligible: BYU has played in more bowl games (40) than Notre Dame, Wisconsin and UCLA, and 16 more than Utah. But getting to the postseason next fall will be a challenge. The Cougars must win at least six games from a schedule that features 10 straight P5 opponents. A six- or seven-win season will be worthy of celebration. It will also get BYU into a bigger bowl game than at any time as an independent.
Stay healthy: Head coach Kalani Sitake just replaced the strength and conditioning staff with the goal of better overall team health. When the Cougars took the field in the New Mexico Bowl, they did so without 11 starters and 12 key reserves. The quarterback position is especially important. When healthy, quarterback Jaren Hall was 7-1 this season. With a banged-up shoulder, he went 0-4 and missed the bowl game due to a second injury (ankle).
Build QB depth: BYU’s lack of depth at the quarterback position was exposed when the Cougars opted to play an injured Hall instead of a healthy back-up. Life in the Big 12 will demand a much smaller talent gap between the starter and the reserves. With Hall leaving for the NFL draft, BYU found help in the transfer portal in the form of former USC and Pitt QB Kedon Slovis.
Run better: The Cougars averaged 5.2 yards per carry in 2022, which may look good on paper, but when they needed it most, like on fourth-and-1 against Notre Dame, the runners went nowhere. BYU converted just 8 of 26 plays on fourth down, which is directly related to the inability to move the ball on the ground.
The Cougars will look to Aidan Robbins for some immediate help. The 6-foot-3, 230-pound running back rushed for over 1,000 yards and nine touchdowns at UNLV. He will replace the departing Chris Brooks and join returners Hinckley Ropati and Miles Davis in the backfield. The Cougars would be wise to sign a few more. Going for it on fourth-and-1 in the Big 12 can’t be a crapshoot.
Cultivate pass catchers: Returning receivers Chase Roberts, Kody Epps and Keanu Hill will be an impressive trio in the Big 12, but the depth behind them must be restocked. Of the 13 pass catchers this season, who combined for 257 receptions for 3,246 yards and 32 touchdowns, 11 missed playing time due to injury or by quitting the team, and at least seven of those players won’t be back in 2023.
Rediscover Rex: BYU has a 6-foot-6 tight end with good hands who needs twice as many receptions next year than he had this year. Isaac Rex caught 22 passes for 320 yards and six touchdowns. Two years ago, with Zach Wilson at quarterback, Rex caught 37 passes for 429 yards and 12 touchdowns. It’s time for BYU to rediscover Rex and get back to attacking the middle of the field with the tight end. Rex will be healthier next year and should have a massive role in the offense.
Blitz and sack: New defensive coordinator Jay Hill plans to rebuild BYU’s front seven. He wants more pressure on the quarterback and guys who can stop the run. Adding former Utah defensive line coach Sione Po’uha to the staff and 6-foot-4, 225-pound edge rusher Isaiah Bagnah from Boise State are two steps in the right direction. Bagnah and returning starter Tyler Batty (6-foot-5, 275-pounds) need to become the Killer Bs in BYU’s pass rush.
Build with Bywater: Of all the highly touted linebackers the Cougars have showcased in the last two seasons, none have proven to be more durable or reliable than sophomore Ben Bywater. Not only did he lead the team in tackles (98) for the second straight year, but he was also the only linebacker to play in every game for the second straight year (26).
Securing the secondary: Redshirt freshman safety Micah Harper and sophomore corner Jakob Robinson grew up while on the field this season. Harper, at 5-foot-10, 185 pounds, finished second on the team in tackles (62) and Robinson, 5-foot-10, 165-pounds, was sixth in tackles (51) with five pass breakups and an interception. No longer boys, these are men who must be the primary playmakers in the secondary.
No price gouging: With competition on the field increasing in the Big 12, so will the cost of a ticket. Even with an unprecedented amount of television revenue coming to BYU, fans should brace for a spike. Raising ticket prices is understandable, so long as it’s reasonable. But it’s also a product of the big time — which is what fans have been wishing for — for a long time.
Reality-based expectations: BYU is a winning football program. So much so, that an 8-5 season was so disappointing that it triggered staff changes and player movement. Joining the Big 12 will make winning more difficult where an 8-5 season in 2023 would be and should be celebrated.
This is not a call to accept losing, but more of a pitch for a New Year’s resolution to be more resolute about enjoying the winning — which may come in smaller doses for a while. From this day forward, a win in the Big 12 will trump all the victories outside of it, except for maybe one.
Wishes do come true and after 12 years of longing, the year that will finally give BYU a sense of belonging is here. The ball dropping in New York’s Times Square on Saturday night is a sign of the times. It marks both an ending and a beginning — both for the calendar and for the Cougars.
Dave McCann is a contributor to the Deseret News and is the studio host for “BYU Sports Nation Game Day,” “The Post Game Show,” “After Further Review,” and play-by-play announcer for BYUtv. He is also co-host of “Y’s Guys” at ysguys.com.