BYU’s 2022 football schedule, which begins Sept. 3 in steamy Tampa, Florida, against a much-improved South Florida team, is shaping up to be one of the more difficult slates since the Cougars went independent in football in 2011.

That’s fitting, considering this is BYU’s final season of independence. At this time next year, we will be talking about nonconference games against Sam Houston State, Southern Utah and Arkansas and nine Big 12 games.

But as head coach Kalani Sitake said time and again at BYU football media day last month, the focus in Provo is, and should be, on the 2022 season. Certainly, BYU doesn’t want to wade into the Power Five waters after a losing season.

“All I am focused on is making sure that we perform at our best this season. That’s it. I can’t control anything but that. I think we will have a really good chance for a good season.” — BYU football coach Kalani Sitake

That would be a momentum-killer for a program that has gone 21-4 the past two seasons.

“All I am focused on is making sure that we perform at our best this season. That’s it. I can’t control anything but that,” Sitake said. “I think we will have a really good chance for a good season. LaVell (Edwards) used to always say at every press conference, ‘We have a chance to be really good.’

“And for us, we have a chance to be really good, but that is going to (depend) on if I do my job correctly in the next couple of months. We will wait and see.”

How difficult will the 2022 schedule be? To say it is the absolute toughest in BYU’s 12 seasons of independence is a stretch, but the potential is there for plenty of stumbles if the Cougars aren’t careful.

In addition to facing five Power Five opponents this fall (Baylor, Oregon, Notre Dame, Arkansas and Stanford), BYU faces up-and-coming independent Liberty and Group of Five power Boise State on the road.

Home games against an angry and disrespected Utah State team and former Mountain West foe Wyoming have the potential to be difficult. 

Really, there’s only one bonafide gimme — the first-ever meeting with Utah Tech, the school in St. George formerly known as Dixie State University.

With preseason training camp scheduled to begin next week, now seems like a good time to present the Deseret News’ annual ranking of the Cougars’ 2022 schedule in order of difficulty. Which opponents will be the hardest for BYU to beat? 

This isn’t a ranking of the best teams on the schedule. Instead, it is an analysis of which opponents have the potential to knock off the Cougars, due to matchups, history, whatever.

For instance, last year we ranked Utah No. 1, because the Utes had won nine straight in the series and seemed to be in the Cougars’ heads. Everyone knows how that turned out.

“Last year we had that (Utah) game circled, even though it wasn’t the opener,” said linebacker Payton Wilgar. “This year is different. For us, it is more about not having any lapses. To see the schedule we have this year, there are a lot of amazing opportunities to compete at the highest level. Being the last year of independence, there is a lot riding on it and another opportunity to go out and show what we can do.”

A lot of BYU players were asked by the Deseret News and other outlets to name the opponent they are most excited to play, and most pointed to South Florida because it is the first game on the schedule. They are well-coached in that regard.

With more pressing, however, some players acknowledged that without rival Utah on the schedule, Notre Dame, Baylor and Oregon are the schools they are most looking forward to playing. The Bears beat the Cougars 38-24 in Texas last year and BYU players are clearly eager to show their future league mates that they are better than what they showed that warm October day in Waco.

Notre Dame is a College Football Playoff candidate again and Oregon on Sept. 17 at Autzen Stadium in Eugene represents a chance for the Cougars to continue their winning streak over the Pac-12 after they went 5-0 against the league last year.

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“I like the fact that there is good competition. I mean, it is always fun to play good teams,” said tight end Dallin Holker. “It is just fun playing football, and it is fun to play in cool environments and cool places.”

Cornerbacks coach Jernaro Gilford said coaches have pushed the “zero and zero mentality” to the players, meaning that this team is 0-0 and it doesn’t matter what happened the past two years.

“We tell our guys all the time: ‘Game one is now. We went to a bowl game and had success last season, but now we not only have to duplicate what we did, we have to try and win some big games, and try to stay healthy,” Gilford said.

Receiver Gunner Romney said he wishes Utah was on the schedule, because that game is so fun to play in and draws the attention of the entire state. But the fifth-year senior doesn’t believe preparation has been any different without the rivalry game to get excited about.

“You try to not listen to talk that one game is more important than another,” Romney said. “In the offseason, you should have the same mentality that every game is huge, and we do.”

Let’s get to it; here’s our “most-difficult-opponent-for-BYU” rankings for 2022:

1. Notre Dame in Las Vegas

By almost any measure, the Fighting Irish are the best opponent on BYU’s 2022 schedule, and, although the game at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas will be played at a neutral site, roughly 80% of the crowd will be Notre Dame fans. That’s because the matchup is part of Notre Dame’s annual Shamrock Series and the Irish have controlled the ticket sales.

Only 12,000 or so tickets were made available to BYU fans.

On the field, Notre Dame should also have a significant edge. The Irish have gone 43-4 in the regular season the past four seasons, and are No. 5 in the preseason ESPN College Football Power Index. BYU is No. 46.

Barring injury, BYU will have the more experienced quarterback in fifth-year junior Jaren Hall; Notre Dame is reportedly replacing Jack Coan with Tyler Buchner, a former four-star recruit who was mostly a running QB last year in 10 appearances. He rushed for 336 yards.

Both squads are expected to have outstanding offensive lines.

2. Baylor

Aside from matchups with Utah, Boise State and Utah State, revenge games didn’t come often for BYU as an independent, for obvious reasons. But the Week 2 showdown with Baylor in Provo fits that description, for the aforementioned reasons.

About the only advantage BYU will have in this one is that it will be playing at home, at altitude, on Sept. 10. But while the Cougars will have traveled back across the country from South Florida, Baylor will have opened the season at home against a cupcake, Albany. 

The defending Big 12 and Sugar Bowl champions are No. 22 in the FPI and picked to repeat as conference champions. BYU’s FPI win probability in the game is just 42.8%.

It will be Baylor’s first trip to BYU since 1984, when the Cougars won 47-13 en route to a perfect season.

Last year, Gerry Bohanon quarterbacked the Bears’ win over BYU. But he’s at South Florida now, having lost the starting QB job to Blake Shapen, who connected on 17 straight passes in Baylor’s win over Oklahoma State in the Big 12 championship game.

3. At Oregon

The last time anyone from BYU paid attention to the Ducks, they were getting steamrolled by Utah twice last fall in the space of two weeks by a combined score of 76-17. But don’t be fooled. BYU’s first trip back to Autzen Stadium since 1990 will be played at one of the most difficult road venues in college football.

Auburn quarterback Bo Nix throws a pass against Mississippi State Saturday, Nov. 13, 2021, in Auburn, Ala. The former Tiger transferred to Oregon and could be the QB under center when the Cougars face the Ducks in Eugene. | Butch Dill, Associated Press

The series is tied 3-3; BYU won the last matchup 38-8 in the 2006 Las Vegas Bowl.

Oregon is No. 23 in the FPI, a spot below Baylor, and a case could be made that this is the toughest game to win on BYU’s schedule, given that the Ducks are at home.

Oregon could be replacing three-year starting QB Anthony Brown with former Auburn quarterback Bo Nix. Jay Butterfield and Ty Thompson were also in the mix after spring practices.

Wilgar said going 5-0 against the Pac-12 is something the Cougars took pride in last year, but playing in a hostile environment in Eugene will be unlike anything they’ve seen recently.

“I do think our success (against the Pac-12) last year showed that we are Big 12 ready,” Wilgar said. “A lot of people have counted us out since I’ve been here. They didn’t expect us to beat Tennessee or USC. We have pulled off some big upsets and stuff. I think we can compete with the best teams in the country. I think there is always room for improvement, but I think we will be solid going into that league.”

4. At Boise State

We had BYU’s home contest against the Broncos as the seventh-most difficult game on the Cougars’ 2021 schedule, and were obviously dead wrong. Boise State beat BYU 26-17 on Oct. 9, handing the Cougars their first loss of the season and pretty much ruining their dreams of playing in a New Year’s Six bowl game.

The Cougars’ only other losses were to Baylor in Waco and UAB in the bowl game.

The Broncos are coming off a 7-5 season, their worst since 2013, but they still have talented QB Hank Bachmeier.

Fans should expect an electric atmosphere at Albertsons Stadium, considering that this will be the last BYU-Boise State game for a while, closing the book on a decadelong rivalry. Also, Broncos fans surely haven’t forgotten how the Cougars walloped Boise State 51-17 on the blue in 2020.

5. Arkansas

If this first-ever matchup between the Razorbacks and Cougars were played in Fayetteville, it would probably rank as the most difficult game on BYU’s schedule. The Hogs are that good.

At least, they’ve got a phenomenal quarterback, 6-foot-3, 245-pound KJ Jefferson. The dual-threat QB ran for 664 yards and six touchdowns last season and completed 198 of 294 passes for 2,676 yards and 21 TDs. He beat Texas and Texas A&M and showed well against Alabama.

Arkansas quarterback KJ Jefferson runs against Penn State Saturday, Jan. 1, 2022, in Tampa, Fla. The dual-threat Jefferson is the kind of QB who could give the Cougars fits when the two teams meet this fall in Provo. | Chris O’Meara, Associated Press

As previously mentioned, BYU will play at Arkansas in 2023. The Razorbacks are No. 26 in the FPI and will likely be a slight favorite in Provo; BYU’s FPI win probability in the game is 46.4%.

6. At Stanford

Stanford, which has already received two commitments from prospects BYU was recruiting heavily — Hunter Clegg and Walker Lyons — was not very good last year, aside from an early upset of Oregon. The Cardinal lost nine games by a combined 183 points, and won just three.

Stanford is No. 62 in the FPI.

However, 6-foot-6 quarterback Tanner McKee — another member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who BYU recruited heavily — is back and the Cardinal have plenty of talent around him.

Stanford is 2-0 against BYU, having most recently downed the Cougars 37-10 at Stanford Stadium in 2004.

7. Utah State

The defending Mountain West champions will have plenty to play for when they visit LaVell Edwards Stadium on Sept. 29, not the least of which is regaining the Old Wagon Wheel. BYU kept it after knocking off the Aggies 34-20 at Maverik Stadium last season.

Of course, last spring BYU announced that it is taking advantage of a clause in future game contracts with Utah State and opting out of any future scheduled games. Clearly, Utah State did not want the series to end. The Aggies will be fired up in Provo for the Thursday night game, and seemingly have a quarterback capable of leading them to an upset. 

BYU players carry the Old Wagon Wheel after beating USU in Logan Saturday, Nov. 28, 2015. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Graduate student Logan Bonner, a quarterback who followed coach Blake Anderson from Arkansas State to Logan, threw for 3,628 yards and 36 touchdowns in 2021.

BYU leads the all-time series 50-37-3.

8. At Liberty

Having doused the Flames 31-24 in Provo in 2019, BYU returns the trip to fellow independent Liberty on Oct. 22. Liberty went 8-5 in 2021 and 10-1 in the COVID-altered 2020 season and is trying to follow the same blueprint laid down by BYU as a faith-based school on the rise in college football.

The game in Lynchburg, Virginia, won’t be easy for the Cougars, even though outstanding Flames QB Malik Willis is off to the NFL. 

Coincidentally, Liberty’s new starting QB is none other than Charlie Brewer, who played quarterback for the University of Utah last year against BYU in that stinging loss for the Utes and has a year of eligibility remaining because of COVID-19.

9. At South Florida

BYU’s opener has “trap game” written all over it. The Bulls gave the Cougars all they wanted 35-27 last year, overcoming an early 21-0 deficit to make it a highly competitive game.

Also, don’t forget that USF upset BYU 27-23 at Raymond James Stadium in 2019, knocking Jaren Hall out of the game and holding off third-string QB Baylor Romney’s drive late in the game. Hall was relieving for Zach Wilson, who had sustained a fractured hand against Toledo two weeks before the Cougars traveled to Tampa.

As mentioned, USF’s starting QB, Bohanon, is 1-0 against the Cougars, having led Baylor to the win over BYU last season.

10. Wyoming

This will be the first regular-season matchup between the old WAC and Mountain West foes since BYU left the MW after the 2010 season. The Cougars and Cowboys did meet in the 2016 Poinsettia Bowl, a 24-21 BYU victory.

Having played and coached at Wyoming’s biggest rival — Colorado State — second-year BYU offensive line coach Darrell Funk knows all about the Cowboys and how hard they play, and how much they would love to beat BYU.

“I don’t have it circled, but if I did, it would be because I have so much respect for coach (Craig) Bohl and the toughness of Wyoming,” Funk said. “And I know some guys on their staff that are really good coaches. I have a lot of respect for them. In fact, I was just watching some of the stuff they did last year against a couple of our opponents. They have a lot of talent.”

BYU owns a 45-30-3 series edge against Wyoming, the Cougars’ most common opponent outside of Utah and Utah State. The Cougars have won the last eight matchups.

11. East Carolina

The Pirates were one of the better teams in the AAC last year, compiling a 7-5 record and beating the likes of Memphis and Navy. Their matchup with Boston College in the Military Bowl was canceled.

East Carolina should have BYU’s attention because it downed the Cougars 33-17 in 2017 at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium in Greenville, North Carolina. 

The matchup on Oct. 28 will be just the third meeting overall. BYU won the first game, 45-38 in 2015.

12. Utah Tech

The Trailblazers from St. George made the jump from Division II to the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) ranks in 2020 and will be playing BYU in football for the first time ever.

Kobe Tracy started at quarterback the last half of the season for the school formerly known as Dixie State University, and is expected to get the nod when Utah Tech opens the season Sept. 3 at Sacramento State.

BYU is paying Utah Tech $425,000 for the game, which will come after the Cougars’ first and only bye in 2022. BYU wraps up the regular season Nov. 26 at Stanford.

Baylor quarterback Blake Shapen throws a pass in against Oklahoma State for the Big 12 Conference championship in Arlington, Texas, Saturday, Dec. 4, 2021. Shapen connected on 17 straight passes in Baylor’s win over the Cowboys. | Tim Heitman, Associated Press