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BYU won’t play Michigan State or Minnesota and the Utah game is in jeopardy. What do the Cougars do now?

Scheduled to play the Big Ten’s Michigan State and Minnesota in 2020, Cougars may fill out docket with other independents such as NMSU, Army, Liberty and Notre Dame.

BYU head coach Kalani Sitake celebrates a touchdown as BYU and Utah State University play at Maverik Stadium in Logan on Friday, Sept. 29, 2017.
BYU head coach Kalani Sitake celebrates a touchdown as BYU and Utah State University play at Maverik Stadium in Logan on Friday, Sept. 29, 2017.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

PROVO — In May, athletic directors at college football’s independents — BYU, Notre Dame, Army, UMass, New Mexico State and Liberty — began having informal discussions about playing each other, perhaps even twice, during the 2020 season if schools that belong to conferences chose to only play teams within their conference.

Thursday, those talks undoubtedly became more intense, if they hadn’t already.

The dominoes started falling Thursday afternoon as the Big Ten announced that all of its sports will move to conference-only schedules due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

BYU’s football team was scheduled to play host to the Big Ten’s Michigan State on Sept. 12 and travel to Minnesota on Sept. 26 to meet the Big Ten’s Gophers in Minneapolis.

A few hours after the Big Ten’s announcement, BYU officials released a statement of their own, confirming the need to reach out to schools with potential openings, most likely fellow independents.

“The Big Ten’s announcement today obviously has specific ramifications regarding the 2020 BYU football schedule,” the statement read. “As we navigate the uncertainties of the current pandemic, BYU will continue to have discussions with other universities and our stakeholders to make the best possible decisions for our student-athletes and our athletic program.”

Other affected Big Ten sports are women’s volleyball, men’s and women’s soccer, men’s and women’s cross country and field hockey. BYU has yet to release its soccer and volleyball nonconference schedules for 2020.

BYU’s 2020 football schedule has been set for years, however, and will now have to be redrawn considerably. There were also reports Thursday that the Pac-12 will follow the Big Ten and cancel all nonconference games, meaning BYU’s games against Utah (Sept. 3), Arizona State (Sept. 19) and Stanford (Nov. 28) are in serious jeopardy.

The conference had made no official statement as of 5 p.m. MDT Thursday, and a University of Utah spokesperson said the school would have no comment on the matter.

In announcing the cancellations, the Big Ten said the health, safety and wellness of its student-athletes and coaches, as well as referees and others involved in managing games, was its top priority.

“By limiting competition to other Big Ten institutions, the Conference will have the greatest flexibility to adjust its own operations throughout the season and make quick decisions in real-time based on the most current evolving medical advice and the fluid nature of the pandemic,” the statement read.

Where does this leave BYU?

Assuming the Pac-12 reports are accurate, the Cougars will need five last-minute opponents to replace them. That could grow to a sixth if the SEC follows suit as BYU is scheduled to host the SEC’s Missouri on Oct. 10.

The website 247sports.com reported that the SEC is waiting as long as possible before making a decision on its schedule and is not scheduled to discuss a plan until next week.

“The SEC will continue to meet regularly with our campus leaders in the coming weeks, guided by medical advisors, to make the important decisions necessary to determine best path forward related to the SEC fall sports,” SEC commissioner Greg Sankey told Stadium.com.

Missouri athletic director Jim Sterk did not specifically mention the Tigers’ game at BYU on Oct. 10 on Thursday but said conference-only games would potentially be safer due to familiarity.

“Probably, it’s a comfort level of how protocols are being enacted, how testing is done and then keeping it within that family ... your expanded social circle or social pod. You might be able to control things more that way, or feel like you can, anyway versus the unknown of people coming from outside our 11 states,” Sterk told the Associated Press.

The Cougars’ other opponents are Utah State (Oct. 2), Houston (Oct. 16), Northern Illinois (Oct. 24 in DeKalb, Illinois), Boise State (Nov. 6) and North Alabama (Nov. 21).

College football experts agree the situation is extremely fluid and could change weekly, if not daily.

Obviously, now might be a good time for Notre Dame, which owes BYU a game after the Cougars visited South Bend twice, to visit Provo, many fans have surmised. But the Irish have a scheduling agreement with the ACC and might simply just expand that to fill out their 12-game schedule.

What about the Mountain West? Would the conference BYU bolted from in 2011 be willing to add the Cougars to its 2020 schedule?

Ron Counts of the Boise-based Idaho Statesman tweeted Thursday night that Mountain West officials have had no discussions about adding BYU if the conference does go with a conference-only schedule, citing a league spokesperson.

Several Big 12-based outlets postured that the league — which hasn’t said whether it will follow the Big Ten’s lead in allowing only conference games — should invite Notre Dame and BYU on a temporary basis.

At this point, it is all speculation for BYU moving forward — except for those two big holes vacated by the Gophers and Spartans on Thursday. Michigan State owes BYU a game in Provo, after the Cougars visited East Lansing in 2016. The Minnesota-BYU series is the beginning of a home-and-home arrangement.

So the most likely scenario is that BYU turns to other independents — none of which are on the current schedule. In May, BYU officials downplayed the notion of a round-robin schedule of independents. Obviously, things have changed.

“We just want to play a full football schedule, like everybody else across the country,” BYU Associate Athletic Director for Communication Duff Tittle said at the time.

New Mexico State athletic director Mario Moccia labeled them “cursory conversations” but acknowledged, “If things blew up and it all just went to conference games, I think we would all get on the phone with each other very seriously.”

Thursday, that blow up arrived. At least for BYU.