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Commentary: Tom Holmoe is back casting lines after Vols wiggle off the hook

With Tennessee no longer on the 2023 football slate, the BYU AD is looking for an opponent, a task he became adept at during BYU’s independent era.

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Tennessee fans prepare for the game near Neyland Stadium in Knoxville as the Cougars and the Volunteers prepare to play on Saturday, Sept. 7, 2019. The two teams were scheduled to meet in Provo in 2023, but earlier this week the Vols backed out, choosing to play Virginia instead.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Tom Holmoe has been on a fishing trip for 11 years. He gassed up his boat on Sept. 1, 2010, when BYU announced it was leaving the Mountain West Conference to become an independent in football — and the athletic director has been on the water ever since.

The stunning move required an immediate haul. A simple “catch of the day” wouldn’t suffice. He needed volume and with the one-year notice to have a full schedule in place, there was no time to bait a hook and search for a sweet spot. Holmoe had to cast a wide net and hope for the best.

Along the way, on good days and bad, he learned the old adage — “Fish come in three sizes; small, medium and the one that got away.”

The initial catch was impressive with several good-sized fish — Ole Miss, Texas, Oregon State, Central Florida, TCU and Utah. There were small fish too — Idaho State, Utah State, Idaho, New Mexico State Hawaii and Tulsa.

BYU finished 10-3 and won the Armed Forces Bowl and looked to be quickly adjusting to life in its own pond.

All of this, while Holmoe kept fishing — and catching.

Big fish

As he worked on the water, two specific challenges arose. First, the biggest fish didn’t want to swim in BYU’s pond. They preferred their own water and if the Cougars wanted to catch them, they had to do so on their terms, in their pond — Notre Dame is a prime example.

The Irish agreed to a six-game schedule against BYU with two games promised for Provo, but they wiggled off the hook. Instead, the Cougars played two games in South Bend and will face Notre Dame in Las Vegas on Oct. 8 and that’s it.

Over the course of independence through 2021, not including Utah who has been a near-regular opponent since 1922, BYU has played 23 teams from Power Five conferences on the road and just nine in Provo.

The Cougars faced Michigan, Nebraska, Ole Miss and Tennessee without return games. The Volunteers this week agreed to pay $2 million to buy out their scheduled trip to Provo next September. BYU faced LSU and West Virginia at so-called neutral sites in New Orleans (LSU) and Washington D.C. (W.Va.). It also played Arizona in both Glendale, Arizona, and Las Vegas.

Wisconsin agreed to come to Provo in exchange for BYU playing twice in Madison. USC made the same deal for one game at LaVell Edwards Stadium and two in Los Angeles. Michigan State and Missouri hosted the Cougars, but both return games were postponed during the 2020 COVID-19 season.

Small fish

The second challenge Holmoe faced was catching fish in November. Apart from last year’s season finale at USC, only small fish were finding his net as most P5 teams were deep into their respective conference and rivalry games.

It became difficult for the fans, the consumers, to be happy eating cold fish sticks when everybody else was dining on salmon and sushi.

The bare bones of November’s home game slates included Idaho State (three times), Idaho (twice), UMass (twice), New Mexico State (twice), UNLV, Savannah State, Southern Utah, Utah State, Liberty, Fresno State, North Alabama and Boise State.

The bowl games weren’t much better. Utah was the last P5 opponent to play BYU in the postseason in the 2015 Las Vegas Bowl.

Throwing fish back

When the Big 12 invited the Cougars to join the league during a landmark announcement last Sept. 10, Holmoe had to change his approach to the way he was fishing. He had to replace his net with a pole and a single hook, and he had to start throwing fish that he had previously caught back into the water (USC, Boise State, Utah State, UNLV, etc.)

It’s a little ironic that the season where he may have amassed BYU’s toughest and most balanced schedule as an independent — with home games against Baylor and Arkansas and road games at Oregon, Stanford and a neutral site game against Notre Dame (Las Vegas), will be the last time he has to do it.

Instead of catching a dozen fish to feed Cougar Nation every fall season, he only needs to bring in three and he can now be selective in where he fishes. The Big 12 will provide the rest of the menu. Its expected approach to a nine-game conference schedule will allow for only a trio of nonleague games.

The one that got away

This is why losing Tennessee to a buyout is a major bummer. The Volunteers were set to make their first trip to Provo in program history. And after BYU’s stunning double-overtime win in Knoxville in 2019, this one had all the makings of a classic color splash of orange, royal and white on a hot September night to kick off BYU’s induction as a P5 on national television.

Instead, not wanting to take the risk of getting deboned and grilled in the Rocky Mountains, the Vols are paying to get off the hook and will instead play Virginia in a lucrative and more convenient showdown in Nashville.

You can’t blame them. They are fishing too, but more selectively and in their own pond. In addition to the Virginia game in 2023, the Vols will host lightweights Austin Peay, Texas-San Antonio, and UConn before facing Alabama on the road. To them, and second-year head coach Josh Heupel, the chance to be 4-0 is worth whatever it costs to not be 3-1 or even 3-2 after facing the Crimson Tide.

It’s a less-is-more nonconference approach BYU might want to consider as it moves from its own pond and into the challenging Big 12, where the fish are bigger and more difficult to catch.

For now, the loss of the Vols has Holmoe back on the water trolling for new opponent to open the 2023 season after Tennessee became the big one, and perhaps the last one, to get away.

Dave McCann is a contributor to the Deseret News and is the studio host for “After Further Review,” co-host for “Countdown to Kickoff” and the “Postgame Show” and play-by-play announcer for BYUtv.


BYU kicker Jake Oldroyd kicks a first-half field goal as BYU and Tennessee play in Knoxville on Saturday, Sept. 7, 2019. BYU went on to win 29-26 in double overtime.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News