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Analysis: Fortune finally smiled upon BYU, but only because Cougars were prepared to pounce

Saturday’s hastily arranged marriage with Coastal Carolina suddenly becomes one of the most important games in recent BYU football history, and provides a path for Cougars to get into a New Year’s Six bowl game if they win

BYU’s director of athletics Tom Holmoe introduces Kalani Sitake as the new head football coach at a press conference in Provo Monday, Dec. 21, 2015.
BYU’s director of athletics Tom Holmoe introduces Kalani Sitake as the new head football coach at a press conference in Provo Monday, Dec. 21, 2015. Holmoe helped broker a deal for a game against Coastal Carolina on Saturday.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

There’s this weird level of paranoia among BYU football fans who frequent message boards and social media websites that all rumors of bad news involving the program — injuries, suspensions, and the like — turn out to be true, while potential good news rarely pans out.

Developments Wednesday night and early Thursday morning may change that.

This time, the news couldn’t be much better for a program that has seen its share of the opposite lately.

Less than 24 hours after they were handed another disappointing ranking, No. 13, by the College Football Playoff selection committee, a ranking that seemingly put a major crimp in their hopes of making it into a lucrative New Year’s Six bowl game, good fortune smiled upon the Cougars.

They desperately needed at least one more quality opponent — and quality win, although that could be much more difficult than some Cougar fans realize — to impress the committee, and it arrived Thursday morning with the announcement that No. 18 Coastal Carolina of the Sun Belt Conference will host BYU Saturday afternoon in Conway, South Carolina.

“It is an incredible opportunity,” said BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe, one of the architects of the last-minute agreement. Holmoe said in a Zoom meeting Thursday afternoon that the first inkling he got that Liberty was struggling with high COVID-19 numbers and Coastal might need a replacement opponent came Wednesday morning.

One of independent BYU’s only true friends, ESPN, became involved and 24 hours later an agreement was made in principle, although as of midday Thursday no contract had been signed. Holmoe did say that Coastal has agreed to return the game in Provo, but there’s no time to hash out those details now.

Not when there’s a hugely important game to win, suddenly one of the more important games in program history.

No, a win over the 9-0 Chanticleers won’t get BYU, which is still scheduled to host San Diego State on Dec. 12, even close to the four-team College Football Playoff. That goal appears even more impossible now, given how the committee has treated not just the Cougars but all non-Power Five teams the past few years. For more on that, see Central Florida.

But it is a risk the Cougars absolutely have to take, Holmoe acknowledged, which is why BYU sent its equipment truck on the way to Conway, South Carolina, just after 9 p.m. Wednesday knowing that if Liberty had better news Thursday morning, the truck would be called back to Provo.

He downplayed the need for Kalani Sitake’s team to put together another impressive performance to grab the attention of the committee and keep BYU’s NY6 hopes alive, saying, “All this is is an opportunity for our kids to play.”

An added bonus: ESPN’s popular “GameDay” program will be there, having previously scheduled its appearance when Coastal was scheduled to host Liberty. Of course, the Flames’ issues with the COVID-19 virus caused them to have to withdraw from the contest.

“To be able to play on “GameDay,” it is huge opportunity,” said BYU defensive back Troy Warner.

It is just the latest scheduling miracle among many pulled off since August by Holmoe, the 15-year AD who got a little choked up when describing the makeup of this BYU team and what has enabled it to put itself in position to play September when every other team in the West was kept from doing so by their respective conferences.

“It was fortuitous, how all the puzzle pieces all fell together and we were able to get a good team to play,” he said, but not after giving a “shoutout” to Liberty and Flames AD Ian McCaw for making a congratulatory phone call at 7:15 a.m.

So, kudos to Holmoe and his staff for being prepared to pull the trigger on a deal such as this when the opportunity presented itself. A common knock on BYU, even from its own fans, is that it moves too slowly.

Not this time.

Praise from around the country poured in for Holmoe and BYU Thursday for having the nimbleness to make such a bold move — a cross-country trip lined up two days before kickoff (3:30 p.m. MST, ESPNU).

Jerry Palm, a CBS Sports bowl expert, said the game is “exactly” what BYU needs to get selected for a NY6 bowl, providing the early 10-point favorites beat a team that opened the season by knocking off the Big-12’s Kansas easily and convincingly.

“A win at Coastal Carolina would easily be the best win of the season for BYU and should give the Cougars enough of a boost to position them for a New Year’s Six game,” Palm said.

Like BYU, Coastal has soared up the rankings this season after being picked to finish last in its division in the Sun Belt preseason poll. If the Cougars are a national media darling this year, the Chants aren’t far behind.

“They’ve done a lot of great things this year,” said BYU offensive lineman James Empey. “You can’t ask for a better opponent than that.”

What’s in it for Coastal Carolina? First, it doesn’t lose out on the type of publicity that money can’t buy with “GameDay” still in town and not vanishing when the Liberty game was canceled. Second, CC can make its case for getting the NY6 berth that goes to the highest-ranked Group of Five champion if No. 7 Cincinnati stumbles.

Coastal plays No. 21 Louisiana in the Sun Belt championship game Dec. 19 at home in Brooks Stadium. The Chanticleers edged Louisiana 30-27 on Oct. 14, handing the Ragin’ Cajuns their only loss.

“It is kinda hard not to take notice of the success they’ve had,” Warner said.

In some circles of Cougar Nation, BYU’s agreement with ESPN — extended last January — was being questioned a bit as all that talk that the worldwide leader would jump in to get BYU some big-time games faded as the season wore on. Was ESPN really helping?

Thursday’s announcement should put a stop to that nonsense once and for all.

“It’s good to have a partner like ESPN that can help put together such a meaningful game at this point of the season,” Holmoe said.

How significant in this matchup?

It will be only the sixth pre-bowl December meeting between two undefeated teams, and only the second since Texas vs. Arkansas in 1969. The most recent was the SEC title game pitting Alabama and Florida in 2009.

In the national polls, the ones that are always rendered meaningless once the CFP rankings are released, BYU sits at No. 8 and Coastal sits at No. 14. Through it all, especially when BYU saw that No. 14 ranking next to its name when the CFP rankings first came out, Holmoe said the mantra was to stay calm and patient.

Because some times last-minute arrangements are the best kind.