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Game of the year? For BYU and Coastal Carolina, it’s more than that

The cooperation and out-of-the-box planning may be this game’s true legacy

BYU head football coach Kalani Sitake, center, walks onto the field with his team after the Cougars defeated North Alabama in Provo on Saturday, Nov. 21, 2020.
Steve Griffin, Deseret News

In many ways, No. 13 BYU’s Saturday showdown with No. 18 Coastal Carolina has the makings of a classic. For both teams, it’s the game of the year, and perhaps the biggest game in decades. Its biggest legacy, though, may be completely unrelated to the outcome on the field Saturday.

It wasn’t until Wednesday that officials from BYU and CCU first communicated about a potential game this weekend. By Wednesday night, rumors of a BYU-CCU game started swirling on social media. By Thursday morning, it was official: BYU would head to Conway, South Carolina, for a top-20 matchup hosted by ESPN’s “College GameDay.”

It’s the best of both worlds for both programs — the Cougars, who are enjoying their best season in decades, and the Chanticleers, who are riding their best season ever. Coastal Carolina has only been playing football since 2003 and in the FBS since 2016. Now, a win against BYU would plant them as the Group of Five’s heir-apparent for a New Year’s Six bowl game, should Cincinnati stumble.

Granted, the Cougars have other plans. A win would earn BYU a resume-boosting victory against a quality opponent, something the College Football Playoff committee says it desperately needs. Would it be enough to place the Cougars in the CFP’s top 10? Possibly.

Analysts and experts will continue to speculate, but the biggest effect of this game may go well beyond the game itself. In about 72 hours, two college football programs will have gone from having no contact to meeting on a football field. In an era of collegiate athletes driven by money and big-conference power, that cooperation is incredible.

Consider the feat: during most seasons, teams schedule games years in advance. (For example, BYU has a game with Stanford on the docket for 2035, a matchup between current kindergarteners). The COVID-19 pandemic threw precedent out the window, though, and independent BYU — more than most teams — has been forced to adapt. In Coastal Carolina, and with the aid of ESPN, the Cougars have an ideal partner.

Both teams were willing to cooperate, to work outside the box and to find solutions. In an era of collegiate athletics marked by money and big-conference power, the BYU-Coastal Carolina matchup is a testament to cooperation, sacrifice and the value of trusted relationships — in this case between BYU, Liberty, the Sun Belt Conference, and a new on-the-field opponent that will certainly be an off-the-field friend.

Even national college football writer Stewart Mandel — who has been a vocal critic of the Cougars in recent weeks — was impressed by the feat. “Tom Holmoe for (athletic director) of the year,” he tweeted after the announcement Thursday. “Seriously.”

CCU director of athletics Matt Hogue, too, deserves his fair share of credit. “The last day has been the proverbial blur,” he told the Deseret News on Thursday, hours after the game was formally announced. “To go through what we’ve done the last 24 hours has just been a rush of adrenaline. A lot of uncertainty about where we would finally land, but we’re excited.”

Liberty athletic director Ian McCaw deserves a hat tip, as well. Liberty was scheduled to play Coastal this weekend, before a COVID-19 outbreak derailed its visit. Hogue praised his transparency and proactiveness in allowing CCU to begin exploring options; Holmoe expressed gratitude for a gracious congratulatory phone call he received Thursday at 7:15 a.m. from McCaw.

The rest of the nation is grateful, and excited, too. This is the first matchup between two 9-0 (or better) teams in the regular season since No. 1 Michigan bested No. 2 Ohio State in 2006 (an event since dubbed the “Game of the Century”). The stakes haven’t been higher for BYU in decades; for Coastal, “it’s definitely the biggest game in our history,” Hogue said, with an emphasis on definitely. “When we got our program moving and rolling (less than 20 years ago), we dreamed we’d have the chance to play games like this.”

Needless to say, the football should be outstanding. The setting and atmosphere — with “College GameDay” on site — will be historic.

But the cooperation that made the game a reality? That may be this weekend’s true legacy — to the benefit of both sides.