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Analysis: Matchup with SMU in New Mexico Bowl an intriguing one for BYU’s Big 12-bound program

Cougars’ 40th appearance in a bowl game has all the makings of an offensive shootout — provided BYU starting QB Jaren Hall is healthy and plays in the Dec. 17 game

SHARE Analysis: Matchup with SMU in New Mexico Bowl an intriguing one for BYU’s Big 12-bound program
BYU quarterback Jaren Hall is expected to be selected during the 2023 NFL draft.

BYU quarterback Jaren Hall (3) throws the ball while playing the East Carolina Pirates in an NCAA college football game Friday, Oct. 28, 2022, in Provo, Utah. Will Hal, who was hurt in BYU’s win over Stanford, play in the Cougars’ bowl game against SMU?

Ben B. Braun, Deseret News

This one has the potential to be really intriguing — and really high-scoring.

That’s the initial reaction to Sunday’s news that 7-5 BYU will meet 7-5 SMU in the 17th annual New Mexico Bowl on Dec. 17 at University Stadium in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

The currently scheduled kickoff time (12:15 p.m. MST) and television broadcast (ESPN) could change if the NFL flexes the Raiders-Patriots game time on Dec. 18 to an earlier window. If that happens, the BYU-SMU game will kick off at 5:30 p.m. MST on ABC.

Talk about a couple of teams that had similar seasons.

“One of the premier programs in college football, the Cougars have a long history of big moments in our state and are very familiar to the locals. We look forward to hosting the team, players, families and the tremendous BYU fanbase in Albuquerque.” — New Mexico Bowl Executive Director Jeff Siembieda

As most BYU fans know, the Cougars started 4-1, then lost four straight games, then finished their regular season on a high note with three straight wins when the opportunity to play in their 17th bowl game in the last 18 seasons was in serious jeopardy.

SMU is a solid Group of Five program, having finished in a tie for fourth place in the AAC with Houston, which also went 5-3 in league play.

With first-year head coach Rhett Lashlee at the controls, SMU started 2-0 with wins over North Texas and Lamar, then went into a BYU-like tailspin, losing Sept. 17 at Maryland, Sept. 24 to TCU (in Frogs’ coach Sonny Dykes’ homecoming) and Oct. 5 at UCF.

Like BYU, the Mustangs recovered nicely, winning five of their last seven games. The only losses after an Oct. 14 win over Navy were to other bowl-bound teams, Cincinnati (29-27) and Tulane (59-24). SMU enters the bowl game having downed Memphis 34-31 on Nov. 26, the same day BYU was knocking off Stanford 35-26 in Stanford, California.

The Mustangs and Cougars are also similar in that defense, or lack thereof, has been the most disappointing part of their performances. Tulane, which is playing in a New Year’s Six bowl game, put up 59 points and 451 yards on SMU. 

The Mustangs outscored Houston 77-63 in one of the craziest games of the 2022 college football season.

The New Mexico Bowl is one of the first games of the 2022 bowl season, so neither team will get a lot of time to prepare, or heal up.

That’s significant for BYU, because starting quarterback Jaren Hall sustained a right ankle injury in the third quarter of the win over Stanford and did not play in the fourth quarter. Hall has insisted he’s OK and ready to play in the bowl game in interviews following the regular-season finale, but that was also said to be the case last year when he was hurt against USC in the last game.

Hall didn’t play in the Independence Bowl, showing up in a protective boot in Shreveport, Louisiana, and BYU lost 31-28 to Alabama-Birmingham.

Of note, backup quarterback Jacob Conover will not be making the trip to Albuquerque, having announced on Twitter Friday that he is entering the transfer portal with plans to leave BYU. Boise State transfer Cade Fennegan, who is from Dallas, has been seen in a walking boot as recently as the week of the Stanford game.

Fennegan, listed as the third-stringer most of the season, has not appeared in a BYU game; He played at Boise State in 2020.

Another factor that could affect BYU’s preparations is that final exams are scheduled for Dec. 12-16 in the days leading up to the bowl game. In the past, some professors have allowed players to take finals before those dates, or proctors have accompanied the team and administered final exams at the bowl sites.

But given where they were entering November after losses to Notre Dame, Arkansas, Liberty and East Carolina of the AAC, the Cougars cannot afford to be picky in 2022 — and they can’t afford to express disappointment, as some did last year when a 10-2 season was rewarded with a trip to Shreveport.

“We appreciate this invitation from the New Mexico Bowl to come to Albuquerque and face a very good SMU team,” BYU coach Kalani Sitake said in a school news release. “Rhett Lashlee is an excellent coach, and he has his team playing very well right now. Our team is excited for the challenge and for another chance to take the field together. We are grateful for this opportunity to have a great bowl experience for our players.”

It will be BYU’s 40th bowl game, and last as a college football independent. Coincidentally, the Cougars’ last game as a member of the Mountain West Conference was in the New Mexico Bowl. 

BYU entered the game as a 6-6 team and upended also 6-6 UTEP 52-24 to win its fourth bowl game in five years in 2010. Then-freshman quarterback Jake Heaps threw for 264 yards and four touchdowns and earned New Mexico Bowl offensive MVP honors as the Cougars finished the season strong, winning five of their last six games.

Also, the Cougars knocked off SMU 46-45 in the 1980 Holiday Bowl, putting together a massive comeback for their first bowl win in school history.

So there are plenty of interesting storylines — even if there doesn’t figure to be much defense.

“We had a fantastic experience 12 years ago in Albuquerque and look forward to returning to the warm hospitality and incredible southwestern culture,” said BYU director of athletics Tom Holmoe. “With a pre-Christmas game, we anticipate Cougar Nation will have a strong showing at the game.”

After the Stanford game, Sitake said a bowl game was critical to the program because it needs to develop younger players with Big 12 entrance looming in 2023. 

Already, four offensive players have announced intentions to enter the transfer portal: Conover, tight end Dallin Holker, receiver Terence Fall and offensive lineman Campbell Barrington. More could come Monday when the portal window officially opens.

Throughout November as the Cougars worked toward bowl eligibility, it was no secret that the New Mexico Bowl wanted the Cougars, although the bowl’s official tie-ins are with the Mountain West as an anchor and almost every other Group of Five league.

“It is wonderful to welcome BYU back to the New Mexico Bowl,” bowl executive director Jeff Siembieda said, calling BYU “one of the premier programs” in college football. “… The Cougars have a long history of big moments in our state and are very familiar to the locals. We look forward to hosting the team, players, families and the tremendous BYU fan base in Albuquerque.”