Back when he was a linebacker for BYU, and then as an assistant coach under Bronco Mendenhall, current Cougars special teams coordinator and rush ends coach Kelly Poppinga used to hate one aspect about Provo.

“I am excited, and 100% motivated by it. I have conversations with (Aaron Roderick) about this once a week. We are just ready to go, man. We are ready to shut everybody up and show them what is up around here in Provo.”

—  BYU QB Jake Retzlaff on the low expectations for the Cougars

“In the summer, people were always like, ‘national championship year, national championship team, man, this is a national champion caliber program,’” Poppinga told the Deseret News at Monday’s golf gathering and media availability in northern Utah County. “I would be like, ‘You guys are clueless.’ Nobody knows anything before the season starts.”

Poppinga isn’t the first coach or former player to suggest the BYU fanbase is a bit delusional. But then, that’s why they are called fans. They tend to be fanatical. Expectations are always over the moon. Every fanbase has them.

But for BYU football this year, at least among media members and other preseason prognosticators, expectations are as low as they’ve been in quite some time. Almost everybody is picking the 2024 Cougars to finish in the lower third of the new 16-team Big 12 and miss out on a bowl game for the second-straight year.

Voting has concluded for the 2024 Big 12 media preseason poll, and the Cougars quite likely will be picked to finish 14th or 15th, if a straw poll of a couple reporters who participated in the poll is any indication. Last year the poll was released on July 6 — a week before the Big 12 football media days in Arlington, Texas.

This year’s Big 12 gathering is July 9-10 in Las Vegas.

For his part, Poppinga doesn’t care how the voting unfolds. He said he would “love it that way” if BYU is picked to finish last or second-to-last.

“I like that nobody has any expectations for us, because honestly, at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter,” Poppinga said. “We have high expectations for ourselves. We have always taught the players, no matter what, if it is negative or positive noise from the outside, you don’t listen to that stuff.

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“I don’t think it will really have an impact on us. We won’t put it up on the bulletin board and say, ‘Look, this is where they are picking us.’ I just think our guys are confident in who they are, in the scheme, where they are at this point in the process,” he continued. “Now we just have to put it all out on the field. I think we have the pieces to do it.”

Head coach Kalani Sitake has already addressed the low expectations question with the Deseret News, both at a charity golf event in early June and a one-on-one interview in the middle of the month. He’s on record as saying the Cougars will be better than a cellar dweller in 2024.

“Disrespect is good motivation for the boys. I think I want to prove us right more than anything, but it doesn’t hurt to prove others wrong,” he said. “We gotta change minds, and that is the goal. So I think the key is what I have seen from the guys, and the work ethic and the urgency to get better, I really like.”

At least one publication, Athlon Sports, has produced a ranking of every Football Bowl Subdivision team in the country and has BYU at No. 68 nationally, and 14th in the new 16-team Big 12.

Computers aren’t impressed, either

In a more analytical ranking, ESPN’s Football Power Index, or FPI, has BYU at No. 73 in the country, and No. 15 in the Big 12 — ahead of only Houston.

The FPI is a “measure of team strength that is meant to be the best predictor of a team’s performance going forward for the rest of the season,” according to its producer, ESPN.

It projects 4.8 wins for BYU this season, and gives the Cougs a 35.4% chance of getting bowl eligibility (six wins). The FPI gives BYU a 0.5% chance of winning the Big 12 in its second season in the Power Four league, and a 0.6% chance of making the expanded College Football Playoff (12 teams).

“Yeah, nobody is giving us a chance, and I love it. It is awesome. I can’t wait,” said one of the quarterbacks battling for the starting job, Jake Retzlaff. “I mean, I just pulled up a Sports Illustrated article the other day that had me as the No. 15 quarterback in the Big 12, out of 16. So I am excited. I love it.”

The article to which Retzlaff referred was on a West Virginia fan website called Mountaineers Now that is part of the network, and ranked the junior college transfer who was 0-4 as a starter last year ahead of only Arizona State’s Sam Leavitt, a transfer from Michigan State.

“I am excited, and 100% motivated by it,” Retzlaff said. “I have conversations with (BYU OC Aaron Roderick) about this once a week. We are just ready to go, man. We are ready to shut everybody up and show them what is up around here in Provo.”

It could have been worse, obviously. The’s Big 12 website ranks transfer Gerry Bohannon as the 16th best QB in the league and doesn’t include Retzlaff at all.

‘A blessing in disguise’

Roderick has been on both sides of preseason predictions from his time at Utah when the Utes joined the Pac-12 in 2011, until now. He said the low expectations are probably a result of BYU losing its last five games in 2023, and not being totally settled at quarterback.

Roderick said coaches haven’t mentioned it to players because they don’t need to; they all have cell phones and internet access.

“I think we have our own expectations of ourselves and I think everyone was disappointed in how we played last year. And I think that that alone is enough motivation to play better. I think everybody on our team is like that,” Roderick said. “It might have been a blessing in disguise that we didn’t pull out one of those last two games. Because if you win one of those games, then you go into December, and you go to a bowl game, and everybody is feeling pretty good.”

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Instead, Roderick said the losing skid “was a wakeup call for everybody, and a nice reset, so to speak, for a lot of people” who could have fallen back into the same routine had the Cougars tasted postseason play.

“So whatever people predict, I don’t think it has a huge impact right now. It is more about us being disappointed with how we played last year,” he said. “Everybody wants to prove that we are better than that.”

Poppinga agreed, saying that a lot of times more lessons are learned through losing and handling adversity than through winning.

“I think our guys have handled it well. You can tell just the way they have trained with our strength coaches, how much farther along they are with them,” he said. “And then they come and do individual and stuff with us. It is a complete night-and-day difference from a year ago. And I think the team is more united.

“I think getting less transfer guys in, keeping the group more united throughout the offseason has been a way better experience for our team going into fall camp than a year ago, for sure.”

Tough schedule awaits a more experienced team

BYU could be vastly improved this season, but the results could remain the same. That’s because the Cougars face a more difficult schedule, even if blue bloods Texas and Oklahoma have departed for the SEC.

ESPN’s FPI says BYU has the sixth-hardest schedule among Big 12 teams, and 52nd toughest nationally. The Cougars have to play the top five teams in the league, per FPI rankings, and they come during a seven-game stretch in middle of the season.

And BYU didn’t do much in the transfer portal to upgrade its roster; instead, coaches are relying on improvement and consistency. BYU went 0-5 in Big 12 road games last year, were only competitive in a few (Kansas, Oklahoma State) and finished 12th in the 14-team league.

“There has been a fire under our butt since that last game. Not being able to go to a bowl game was obviously super disappointing, so we are excited,” Retzlaff said. “Spring ball had a different level of urgency, and I think that urgency has been carried over into the summer, and it will be into the fall camp. There is no doubt.”

Receiver Kody Epps said preseason expectations have not been a big topic of conversation this spring and summer.

“We haven’t talked about that at all. I think that has been all in the media. We don’t really talk about records or predictions,” Epps said. “What we talk about is how our max is looking (weightlifting), who is getting stronger, joking around in the weight room, joking around in the locker room, and then seeing as players what tee time we are going to get after workouts.”

What other players are saying about low expectations

Three-year starting offensive lineman Connor Pay can always be counted on to tell it like it is; the Lone Peak product doesn’t hold anything back.

“I mean, the last thing we care about is where some media poll puts us,” Pay said. “But it is impossible for it not to put a little chip on your shoulder, give you a little bit of an edge, and not have a desire to go and prove people wrong. That is definitely there. That is definitely present.”


One of BYU’s few transfers this offseason — after last offseason was full of them — former Weber State star Jack Kelly, said he’s noticed his new teammates are more motivated by last year’s disappointing finish than by anything being written or said about the Cougars the past few months.

BYU safety Talan Alfrey (25) and defensive end Tyler Batty (92) tackle Oklahoma State receiver Brennan Presley (80), Saturday, Nov. 25, 2023, in Stillwater, Okla. | Mitch Alcala, Associated Press

“We try not to read too much into predictions because preseason stuff doesn’t really matter that much,” Kelly said. “If anything, it is just putting a chip on our shoulder. We know what we can do and that we are better than that. I think it is going to be great for us to go out there on Saturdays and prove who we really are.”

Safety Talan Alfrey, whose return to the defense last season after a collarbone injury forced him out of the first 10 games marked a definite improvement for the Cougars, said they will likely be an underdog in almost every game this season, and that’s fine with them.

“We expect to do a lot better than that,” Alfrey said. “We are excited to prove people wrong. But it is really just to prove to ourselves that why we train, and how we train, is worth it. We like to win football games. We are going to go out there and just prove that we work hard enough to win games, and go make it happen.”

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