No doubt about it, No. 9 BYU’s football game at No. 21 Boise State on Friday at Albertsons Stadium is easily the most important game of Cougars coach Kalani Sitake’s five-season tenure in Provo.

It isn’t hard to argue that it is BYU’s most important game since it went independent in football in 2011, although a bunch of games with rival Utah loomed large in terms of reversing that curse before the Cougars fell short.

But where does the 7:45 p.m. MST showdown on the blue turf, to be televised nationally by Fox Sports 1, rank among the most important games in BYU football program history?

“All we care about is being at our best and seeing what happens afterwards. That has been our focus the entire season. … Nothing is going to change that this week.” — BYU coach Kalani Sitake

It’s huge — there is no debating that. To bolster that argument, just consider what the Cougars can lose if they can’t win for the first time ever when the big, bad Broncos are their opponent in Boise:

• Their highest national ranking since 2009.

• Their chance for a first undefeated season since 1984.

• Their chance, as slim as it might be, to be considered for the College Football Playoff.

• Their hopes of getting an at-large invitation to a New Year’s Six bowl game.

• Quarterback Zach Wilson’s status as a potential Heisman Trophy candidate.

Of course, the current Cougars (7-0) and their coaches aren’t giving their opinions on the matter, which is no surprise considering Sitake has downplayed the hype since BYU zoomed into the nation’s consciousness with a 55-3 throttling of Navy on ESPN Labor Day night.

“All we care about is being at our best and seeing what happens afterwards,” Sitake said Monday when asked about the game’s implications for the Cougars. “That has been our focus the entire season. … Nothing is going to change that this week.”

Sitake said “a lot of media members wanted to talk about this game last week or even two weeks ago,” but reiterated his team didn’t turn its attention to Boise State until Saturday’s 41-10 win over Western Kentucky was in the books.

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“We are looking to have some success up there,” Sitake said. “But I think if we show our best we will be able to live with whatever result happens.”

Yes, but that result will go a long way toward defining Sitake’s first five seasons at BYU. He’s built a lot of goodwill the past two months, after entering the season with a 27-25 career record. A loss would do considerable damage to the program’s momentum in its quest for more national relevance.

“In terms of history, I don’t know (what the game’s magnitude is),” said junior center James Empey, whose father, Mike, played and coached for the Cougars. “In terms of our season, it is the most important thing right now.”

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Senior safety Troy Warner, who has emerged as the unofficial spokesperson for the defense during this special season, said nobody associated with the team is pondering the longterm implications.

“This is another game on the schedule,” Warner said. “To try and get caught up in the hype and all that, it could throw you off your game. … We are going to do what we have to do to come prepared and come ready for a dogfight.”

Shortly after BYU improved to 7-0 for the first time since 2001 — Gary Crowton’s first season — longtime BYU football broadcaster Greg Wrubell conducted a quick poll on Twitter asking if this “is the most important game for BYU since the 1984 Holiday Bowl.”

Voting was close, with 52.5% opting for true and 47.5% opting for false among the 4,043 who voted.

One strong candidate for most important game in BYU history since the Holiday Bowl, in this author’s eyes, is the 2008 game at TCU when BYU was 6-0 and ranked No. 9 in the country. The Cougars were on a 16-game winning streak, dating back to the 2007 season, the longest in the country at the time.

However, rising star QB Max Hall was pestered all night by a phenomenal Horned Frogs defense, was sacked seven times, and threw two interceptions. TCU took a 32-7 win, became the first Mountain West team to beat the Cougars since 2005, and departed the league a few years later for the Big 12.

BYU rebounded with four straight wins before losing to No. 8 Utah at Rice-Eccles Stadium, but really never recovered from that disappointing night in Fort Worth, Texas, as the loss ended BYU’s BCS hopes.

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We asked a half-dozen local media members who have observed BYU’s football program for more than 20 years apiece, including Wrubell, for their thoughts on where this game ranks among the most important in program history.

Here are their replies: 

Dick Harmon, Deseret News columnist: “I think it is extremely important, but in context. With this strange season, BYU shot up in the rankings with a weak schedule. Once the Big Ten and Pac-12 start playing, it will be tougher to climb.

“Also, Cincinnati is higher-ranked and if it wins out, it would make a lot of the BYU noise moot. The thing that makes it big is that in this kind of year, BYU is getting a look it ordinarily would not sniff, and that is an open door it has to jump through and keep the fire going.

“To be in a position for a New Year’s Six bowl is huge. … I would put this in an asterisk category and put it No. 4 all-time behind the Michigan win in the 1984 Holiday Bowl, the Miami game with Ty Detmer that brought a Heisman and the next Utah win that will break a losing streak and help recruiting.”

Greg Wrubell, BYU director of broadcast media (Voice of the Cougars): “It is one of the five most important games BYU has played since the national championship-clinching Holiday Bowl victory of 1984. Whether it ranks first is a matter of debate with many reasonable arguments, but considering the stakes in the New Year’s Six/College Football Playoff era, it’s safe to say that BYU has rarely played a game with as much on the line.”

Patrick Kinahan, co-host of DJ & PK sports radio show, The Zone Sports Network: “The premise of the most important game in BYU history, and where this game against Boise State ranks, is open to individual interpretation. Several bowl games, conference championship games and the occasional regular-season game (Miami in 1990, for instance) come to mind.

“But without question, this week’s Boise State game is the most important game in the independence era and in Kalani Sitake’s tenure. The program and head coach can go a long way toward establishing credibility by winning Friday night and a loss diminishes much of the good the Cougars have done this season.”

Dave McCann, KSL-TV news anchor and BYUtv sportscaster: “I think there have been bigger BYU games, but this is the biggest since the Cougars went independent in 2011 and definitely the most meaningful for head coach Kalani Sitake.

“A win Friday doesn’t guarantee anything, but it keeps the Cougars in the discussion for the College Football Playoff and puts them squarely on the road to a major bowl game — two goals the program has been chasing since leaving the Mountain West Conference.”

BYU Heisman winner Ty Detmer sets to throw against Miami in 1990.
BYU Heisman-winner Ty Detmer sets to throw against Miami in 1990. The Cougars topped the No. 1-ranked Hurricanes in Provo that day. | Deseret News Archives
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Ralph Sokolowsky, BYU football and basketball statistician since 1979: “I would have to list my top five as follows: 1) The 1984 Holiday Bowl with Michigan meant the opportunity to win the national championship; 2) The 2020 regular-season game with Boise State means the possibility to remain nationally relevant; 3) The 1990 game with Miami meant the opportunity to beat the No. 1 team in the nation; 4) The 1979 Holiday Bowl with Indiana meant the opportunity for BYU’s first unbeaten season; 5) The 1997 Cotton Bowl with Kansas State meant the opportunity to win a major bowl and end up ranked the highest since 1984. It appears that BYU has had one of these about every decade except the 2010s.”

Darnell Dickson, BYU football columnist, Provo Daily Herald: “My top five most important games would be: Michigan in the Holiday Bowl (1984), Miami (1990), Oklahoma (2009), Kansas State in the Cotton Bowl (1997) and Texas A&M (1996).

“A few other games stand out as potentially huge victories but turned out to be devastating losses. One was the 2008 loss at TCU (32-7) after the Cougars started 6-0 and rose to No. 8 in the polls. In 2009, BYU was 2-0 and ranked No. 7 when it hosted Florida State and lost, 54-28.

“In another ‘what-if?’ scenario, BYU started 4-0 in 2014 and Taysom Hill was a Heisman candidate. His injury against Utah State was a killer and the Cougars lost four straight games.”

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