Throughout spring camp last March, football media day in June, and preseason training camp this month, BYU football coach Kalani Sitake has shied away as much as possible from talking about the Cougars’ entrance into the Big 12 in 2023.

“All of our focus is on this season,” Sitake has repeatedly said.

In other words, a throwaway year this is not. With so much at stake in college football these days — reputations are seemingly built and/or lost overnight, greatly affecting recruiting — Sitake’s program simply cannot afford to backslide in 2022. The last thing the Cougars want to do is have the momentum that a 21-4 record the past two seasons produced slowed by a subpar season before they finally join the Power Five ranks.

“I’m totally stoked about our schedule. I see a lot of opportunities to make some noise before we go to the Big 12.” — BYU fullback Masen Wake

It won’t be easy. BYU’s final season of independence — which begins on Sept. 3 with a tricky hard game at much-improved South Florida in the heat and humidity of Tampa — is loaded with landmines.

BYU’s 12th and final season of independence might be its most difficult yet since 2011, based on how its opponents fared last year, and how they are ranked or projected to finish this year. College football analyst and prognosticator Phil Steele says BYU has the 13th hardest schedule in the country.

Of course, teams rise and fall throughout the season, and many don’t live up to expectations. Take last year for instance: Much was made about BYU going 6-1 against Power Five teams, but when the dust cleared the Cougars played only the 63rd toughest schedule in the country, according to Jeff Sagarin’s ratings. 

BYU quarterback Jaren Hall looks to throw against Baylor on Saturday, Oct. 16, 2021, in Waco, Texas. The Bears proved too much for the Cougars that day, but BYU gets another crack at them them this fall in Provo. | Ron Jenkins, Associated Press

Teams such as Arizona State, Virginia and USC weren’t nearly as good as they were supposed to be.

This season, the Cougars won’t meet rival Utah — which was their biggest nemesis the past 12 years — but they will meet No. 5 Notre Dame (in Las Vegas), host No. 10 Baylor and No. 19 Arkansas, and travel to No. 11 Oregon and the Pac-12’s Stanford in the season finale.

“I’m totally stoked about our schedule,” said fullback Masen Wake. “I see a lot of opportunities to make some noise before we go to the Big 12.”

Indeed, there is a lot of reward in the schedule that athletic director Tom Holmoe has been building since 2013, but also a lot of reward.

“All I am focused on is making sure that we perform at our best. That’s it. I can’t control anything but that,” Sitake said in June. “I feel like if we can get that done, and make sure our players are performing at their best, we will have a really good chance to have a successful season, as LaVell (Edwards) used to say.”

Another schedule issue to worry about: BYU plays 10 straight weeks before getting its first and only bye in 2022. Its depth, which has been a priority since the 2021 season ended with a thud in the 31-28 bowl loss to UAB, will be tested mightily through that gantlet of games. There is only one gimme on the slate — the week after the bye against Utah Tech on Nov. 19.

“We did it last year, and it was tough,” said tight ends coach Steve Clark. “You do the best you can week to week, but it isn’t (optimal). You try to monitor guys’ reps, because you don’t want to wear them out.”

BYU coach Kalani Sitake claps and looks on during practice in Provo earlier this month. Sitake likes the Cougars’ chances in 2022 — that is if his players are “performing at their best.” | Jaren Wilkey, BYU Photo

All told, the 12 teams BYU is scheduled to play this year went a combined 90-63 last year; of course, future Big 12 foe Baylor posted a 12-2 mark (including a 38-24 win in Waco over the Cougars that wasn’t that close), won the league and downed the SEC’s Mississippi in the Sugar Bowl. The Bears are predicted to win the league in 2022.

Fiesta Bowl loser Notre Dame (11-2) had a strong season, as did Oregon (10-4), Arkansas (9-4) and Utah State (11-3). Boise State was a disappointing (for them) 7-5, but one of those seven victories was a 26-17 conquest of BYU that effectively ended the Cougars’ New Year’s Six bowl hopes.

“We haven’t really addressed the final season of independence (issue) head on, because our guys understand that the schedule we have this year is no joke,” said receivers coach Fesi Sitake. “There is a lot of talk about the first Big 12 season coming, and we get it. We don’t fault anyone for talking about it. But we are more concerned about this year; we can feel that in the energy and the excitement of this season.”

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When Holmoe built this schedule, the thought that it would be BYU’s last as an independent was more dream than reality. The one-off Oregon game (OU won’t be returning the game in Provo) was announced in 2015. The Baylor series was announced in 2016. The Arkansas series was announced in 2018 (BYU will be visiting Fayetteville in 2023) and the Notre Dame game in Vegas, of course, was set up last fall.

The four-game Stanford series was announced in 2013, but the Cardinal were unable to host the Cougars in 2020 due to COVID-19. The 2023 and 2025 games in Provo have been canceled.

“We have some really good competition this year, and we wouldn’t have it any other way,” said tight end Isaac Rex. “We have some teams we played last year, like Baylor and Boise State, that we obviously want to play again. But just focusing on South Florida right now is a key for us.”

BYU tight end Isaac Rex celebrates his touchdown with BYU wide receiver Gunner Romney in Boca Raton, Florida.
BYU tight end Isaac Rex (83) celebrates his touchdown with receiver Gunner Romney against UCF during Boca Raton Bowl in Boca Raton, Fla., on Dec. 22, 2020. Both playmakers are back in 2022, and with high expectations. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Rex said he’s well-aware that BYU teams in the past have played to their level of competition. 

“We travel to some really cool places, which was one of the best things about independence,” Rex said. “This year, we get to go to Oregon and we play Notre Dame in Las Vegas and we go to Stanford. It’ll be fun.”

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The good news for BYU is that the Cougars should — emphasis on should — have one of their better teams under Sitake. Led by returning QB Jaren Hall and steady linebackers Payton Wilgar and Keenan Pili, BYU returns 80% of its production on offense and 97% on defense. 

On where this team ranks among ones he’s involved with:

“I think it has the potential to be as good as we’ve had. But right now, we are not there, no,” Clark said. “We have the potential to be there. Two years ago our team was really good and went 11-1. And last year’s team was good, too. Check back in a couple weeks.”

In some ways, the timing isn’t good for BYU. The Cougars will lose tons of talent after the season, and will enter Big 12 play in rebuilding mode to some extent.

The better season they have in 2022, the more guys will depart for the NFL after a bowl game that has yet to be finalized but will be one owned by ESPN. One of those guys on the fence is Wilgar, the Rover linebacker coming back from double shoulder surgery.

“For us, this year is more about not having any lapses,” Wilgar said. “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.”

BYU running back Chris Brooks exits the field after a day of work on Aug. 11 in Provo. Brooks will be called on to fill the gap left by Tyler Allgeier, who is now a member of the Atlanta Falcons. | Jaren Wilkey, BYU Photo