Before the 2021 football season, it was fairly easy for the independent BYU Cougars to circle a game on the calendar they were most looking forward to playing.

That was rival Utah, obviously.

It was a bit more difficult in 2022, as BYU’s final schedule as an independent featured the likes of Notre Dame, Baylor, Oregon and several Intermountain area rivals — Utah State, Wyoming and Boise State.

“This isn’t going to be easy, and we know that. … Now that we’re here, there’s a high sense of urgency for us to get ready to go, and I feel really good about the progress that we’ve made as a team in the last couple years.” — BYU football coach Kalani Sitake

Fast forward to the 2023 season, which begins in just over five weeks when the Cougars play host to Sam Houston on Sept. 2 at LaVell Edwards Stadium. Now that they are in a conference, the Big 12, and have had to dump some longtime rivalries, for the first time in a long time the Cougars don’t really have a big-time rival on their schedule.

That was apparent at the Big 12 football media days a few weeks ago, when the Deseret News asked head coach Kalani Sitake and player reps Kedon Slovis, Tyler Batty, Kody Epps, Ryan Rehkow and Ben Bywater which was their biggest game on the 2023 slate.

There was no clear consensus, although the two teams leaving the conference after this season — Texas and Oklahoma — were referred to the most.

There’s also a revenge game for BYU, the only one on the schedule, after Arkansas hung 52 points on them last year in Provo. 

The Cougars roll into Fayetteville for the first time ever on Sept. 16. They will not only be looking for payback, but for conference pride in the Big 12 vs. SEC battle. BYU can earn some quick respect from its conference mates if it can venture into SEC country and pull out a win.

It remains to be seen where this schedule will rank as far as toughness goes, but it certainly will be unlike anything BYU has ever played before, with 10 Power Five opponents.

“This isn’t going to be easy, and we know that,” Sitake said two weeks ago. “… Now that we’re here, there’s a high sense of urgency for us to get ready to go, and I feel really good about the progress that we’ve made as a team in the last couple years.”

Sitake said BYU has learned a lot about its strengths, and its deficiencies, since getting that Power Five invitation back on Sept. 10, 2021 — the day before it knocked off Utah 26-17 in Provo.

“I told (BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe), find as many (P5 opponents) as you can that (other) people don’t want to play; I want to play them all, with the thought that possibly this could be the goal,” Sitake said.

Now, that difficult scheduling is done for them courtesy of conference play, which is one of the reasons why teammates are leaning heavily on starting quarterback Slovis for advice. 

He’s been through the gantlet of league play several times, at the ACC’s Pittsburgh last year and before that, the Pac-12’s USC.

“It can be a grind, but at the same time it’s a blast, because you have to be able to get yourself ready for every single opponent,” Slovis said in Arlington. “There are no cupcakes — not even close.”

There will be time and space for win total predictions later. Let’s see how the Cougars look after a couple weeks of training camp practices. But suffice it to say that if the Cougars can duplicate the win totals of any of the last five seasons, 2023 will have to be deemed a major success.

They went 7-6 in 2018 and 2019, 11-1 in 2020, 10-3 in 2021 (including 5-0 against the Pac-12) and 8-5 last year.

“We are in the Big 12 now and I am excited for everyone to meet our fan base and see how they’ve been a strength for us and our program and definitely a strength for me as a head coach,” Sitake said.

But fans don’t win games, players do, and it will be interesting to see how much talent, and depth, Sitake and company have acquired knowing that this is, as he said, “a whole new ball game, when you look at the schedule.”

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Because preseason training camp begins next week — players report on Monday and the first practice is Tuesday — now is as good of a time as any to present the Deseret News’ annual ranking of the Cougars’ 2023 schedule in order of difficulty.

This isn’t meant to be a ranking of the best teams on the schedule. Rather, it is an analysis of which opponents will be the most difficult for BYU to beat because of venue, matchups, history, and so on.

“There isn’t one team that really jumps out and says, that’s a huge game for us,” said Batty. “They are all huge. That’s what being in a conference is all about.”

Epps and Bywater, following the direction of their coaches, said the first game is the most important — and will set the tone for the rest of the year. And they stressed that Sam Houston has the Cougars’ full attention, regardless of which conference the Bearkats are in.

A quick history lesson is probably in order. Last year, we tabbed Baylor as the second-most difficult squad on BYU’s 2022 schedule (after Notre Dame), and the Cougars edged the Bears in Provo. Meanwhile, East Carolina was the 11th toughest, supposedly, and the Pirates broke through with a 27-24 win in Provo that extended BYU’s losing skid to four games.

College football is nothing if not unpredictable.

So with that admission of uncertainty in mind, let’s begin this annual exercise. Here’s our “most-difficult-opponent-for-BYU” rankings for 2023:

1. At Texas

Former BYU quarterback Steve Sarkisian, now Texas’ head coach, wasn’t in Austin when the Cougars and Taysom Hill laid back-to-back routs on the Longhorns, 40-21 in 2013 in Provo and 41-7 in Austin. But UT’s fans surely remember it, and the 100,000-seat Darrell K. Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium should be rocking on Oct. 18.

“We get a chance to play them,” Sarkisian said at media days. “I’m glad we don’t have to go to Provo. We get them in Austin. So that will be fun.”

And a tall task for the Cougars, seeing as how UT is picked to win the league and BYU is picked to finish 11th.

“I think it’s pretty clear and easy to say, hey, we are going to get everybody’s best shot every Saturday,” Sarkisian said. “The key to the drill is that we make sure they get our best shot every Saturday.”

2. At TCU

Perhaps because BYU has some history with the Horned Frogs, back when they were Mountain West Conference rivals, this game doesn’t seen to be getting as much hype as some of the others. But don’t forget: TCU just might be blooming into a national powerhouse after advancing to the College Football Playoff championship game last year.

“Everybody has slogans for their program, and I think when you think about TCU football, our deal is we try to be all steak and no sizzle,” said coach Sonny Dykes. “We want to fly under the radar a little bit, and I think that’s a role that we relish.”

They won’t fly under BYU’s radar, nor will the Cougars fly under theirs. Dykes talked a lot at media days about BYU’s tradition, his father’s friendship with LaVell Edwards, and, like Sarkisian, was happy to get BYU in Fort Worth in the Cougars’ first year in the league.

Sure, TCU lost a lot of starters, and stars, on both sides of the ball — they are No. 130 in returning production on offense, for instance. But this matchup for BYU ranks ahead of some other opponents who might have better overall teams, but not the history of success the Frogs enjoy over BYU, particularly at Amon Carter Stadium.

3. Oklahoma

For BYU fans, this is the one that leaped off the page when the Big 12 schedule was released on Jan. 31. Unbelievably, to some, the Cougars get a blueblood in Provo for senior day (let’s hope it is played in the daytime) on Nov. 18.

The Sooners, coming off a rare down year, could be playing for a Big 12 title and/or a berth in the CFP. BYU could be playing for a bowl bid. Stakes almost certainly will be high.

“It’s going to be a wonderful atmosphere. Late November, it will probably be about 80 degrees in Provo,” said OU coach Brett Venables, tongue firmly planted in cheek.

Whatever the temperature, here’s a number that will surely be brought up: BYU is 2-0 all-time against OU, both wins coming at neutral sites.

4. At Oklahoma State

Conversely, BYU is 0-2 all-time against Oklahoma State, which hosts the Cougars on Nov. 25 in Stillwater. The Cowboys and Cougars haven’t hooked up since 1976. So how this matchup will go is anybody’s guess.

“I’m very excited for the four teams that are coming into our conference,” OSU coach Mike Gundy said in Arlington. “I think they’re all awesome for the Big 12.”

Adding a little spice to the game is former OSU offensive tackle Caleb Etienne’s transfer to BYU and some not-so-flattering remarks Gundy made about the move.

Oklahoma State opens training camp with a quarterback derby on its hands, but seeing as how BYU doesn’t visit until the regular-season finale, that issue will seemingly be resolved by then. 

Speaking of which, that two-days-after-Thanksgiving affair will compete against a lot of rivalry games for attention. Will it matter, or not?

5. Texas Tech

By most accounts, Texas Tech is a program on the rise, as Joey McGuire is establishing some solid footing in Lubbock and the school in west Texas is stacking stellar recruiting classes.

BYU’s strongest connection to Texas Tech is former Red Raiders coach Mike Leach, who, as everybody in Provo knows, was a student at BYU during Edwards’ tenure. This will be the first meeting since 1940, a matchup won by Texas Tech, 21-10.

The feeling here is that Texas Tech is one of those programs that can fill the void left when Oklahoma and Texas depart for the SEC. No fewer than 18 starters are back, including starting QB Tyler Shough and starting running back Tajh Brooks.

“Love what BYU does and the style of play,” McGuire said at media days when asked about the four newcomers.

6. At Kansas

Expectations are high in Lawrence after last year’s turnaround, engineered by coach Lance Leipold, and the Jayhawks are mostly embracing them. “There’s positivity surrounding the program, and we should enjoy that,” Leipold said.

These are not the Jayhawks of a few years ago. And they will be looking at the game against BYU on Sept. 23 — BYU’s first Big 12 game — as a potential make-or-break contest for their season. Lose to the Cougars, and worries about another backward slide return.

Like Texas Tech, Kansas is 1-0 against BYU, having topped the Cougars in a 1992 Christmas Day bowl game in Hawaii.

A nice sign that the program is on the upswing is that quarterback Jalon Daniels was named preseason Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year. Respect is coming for this one-time Big 12 doormat. Can BYU throw a wrench into those plans, or will the Cougars themselves tumble to the bottom of the league in Year 1?

7. At Arkansas

Maybe the Cougars can catch the Hogs off guard, after KJ Jefferson absolutely torched them last year in Provo. The standout quarterback returns to Arkansas after completing 29 of 40 passes for 367 yards and five touchdowns at LES. The stat that stands out the most, however, is that Arkansas converted on 12 of 15 third-down attempts that sunny day — for the visitors — in Provo.

That loss last year was the beginning of the end for most of BYU’s defensive coaching staff.

Will that success cause Jefferson and company to look past the Cougars on Sept. 17? Don’t bet on it. Coach Sam Pittman is too crafty for that, and Jefferson might be a Heisman Trophy candidate by the time BYU hits the Natural State.

Arkansas’ defense is rebuilding, so the Cougars should be able to move the ball effectively. The Razorbacks’ offense could be unstoppable, however, with running back Raheim Sanders joining Jefferson in the backfield. If there is hope for the Cougars, it is that history suggests they tend to play better in return games against Power Five schools. They bounced back after routs against Wisconsin, Baylor and Utah after drubbings in the previous years.

8. Iowa State

The Cougars are 0-4 against Iowa State, losing four straight times to Cyclones from 1968 to 1974. They will host coach Matt Campbell’s steady program on Nov. 11 in what could be their last chance to get a victory in 2023, seeing as how they wrap up with Oklahoma at home and Oklahoma State on the road.

Campbell said a rare down year caused him and his coaching staff to “look inward” and diagnose what went wrong in 2022. They believe they are on the right track to getting back to being a Big 12 contender. November’s game in Provo will be a good gauge for the program’s progress, Campbell said.

“As a young kid, I always dreamed of playing against BYU, and that Provo area is (a place) I grew up watching those games late night on ESPN,” Campbell said.

9. At West Virginia

This is another program that BYU has never defeated. The Cougars are 0-1 against West Virginia, having lost 35-32 to the Mountaineers in 2016 in a neutral site game at FedEx Field, home of the NFL’s Washington Commanders.

So the Cougars’ first trip to Morgantown should be an interesting one, and far from easy, even though coach Neal Brown’s crew is picked — much to his disgust — to finish last in the Big 12 in 2023.

“Looking forward to proving everybody wrong on that front,” Brown said at Big 12 football media days after a lengthy speech extolling the virtues of his team.

For BYU, it will be a tough scheduling ask; the Cougars play at Texas the week before having to make the cross-country trip to West Virginia.

10. Cincinnati

New Cincinnati coach Scott Satterfield isn’t happy about having to play at BYU on a Friday night (Sept. 29) in what should be a raucous atmosphere in Provo for the Cougars’ first Big 12 home game. 

“When I looked at the schedule, that’s the first thing that stood out,” Satterfield said. “I hate playing on short weeks.”

The Cougars are 2-0 against the Bearcats, having swept the series in 2015 and 2016 before Cincy began its rise in the American Athletic Conference. Satterfield faces a rebuilding project. He said at AT&T Stadium that he has only one scholarship player who was on the team’s roster last fall.

This seems like BYU’s most winnable Big 12 game in 2023.

11. Sam Houston

A national power in the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) ranks, Sam Houston makes the jump to the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) in 2023 with the expectation to make some noise in Conference USA. The Bearkats have plenty of talent from the Houston area, one of the country’s recruiting hotbeds.

So the Cougars have to be careful on Sept. 2, even though the Bearkats went 5-4 last year and lost their final two games — 45-28 to Abilene Christian and 17-7 to Southern Utah.

12. Southern Utah

BYU routed SUU 37-7 on Nov. 12, 2016, in its only previous matchup with the Cedar City school. More of the same should be expected Sept. 10 in Provo, although SUU has a lot of returning experience on offense and might be able to move the ball on the Cougars as another FCS-level team did last November at Edwards Stadium — Utah Tech.

The Cougars defeated the Trailblazers 52-26, but there were some tense moments for the home team in the first half.

Head coach Kalani Sitake, talks with quarterback Kedon Slovis after the BYU Cougars football team practiced in Provo on Friday, March 17, 2023. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News