100 Days Until BYU Football: Three Reasons Beyond Big 12 To Get Excited

May 25, 2023, 7:00 AM

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PROVO, Utah – In 100 days, BYU football kicks off a historic year.

Regardless of the final record, the 2023 season will always be historic as the season BYU began playing in a Power Five league. No, it’s not a dream, BYU fans.

The Cougars will be part of the Big 12 Conference in the fall.

The inaugural season in the Big 12 alone is a big reason to get excited for BYU football in 2023. But, beyond Big 12 affiliation, what should have you excited?

Here are three reasons to get excited for when BYU kicks off the season against Sam Houston on September 2.

#1 Kalani Sitake has surrounded himself with a staff he trusts

The speed at which a place like BYU moves compared to its Power Five peers is at a different pace. Things take time at BYU. Case in point, Kalani Sitake’s staff.

Sitake, entering his eighth season as the head coach at BYU, has the staff he needs to compete at a Power Five level.

When Sitake first arrived as the head coach, he had a limited budget for his staff, forcing him to hire assistants that were not coaching college football. That only lasted two years. After that, he retooled the offensive staff, leading to BYU producing two NFL draft picks at QB, WR, left tackle, and a running back that ran for 1,000 rushing yards in his rookie season.

On the defensive side, he had his longtime colleague and friend Ilaisa Tuiaki leading the defense along with associate head coach Ed Lamb. They put together successful defenses. But in the past two years, it was evident that the defensive staff, like the offense in 2017, needed to be retooled.

Sitake was confident throughout last season that he knew how to get the defense fixed. He called the defensive plays after the Arkansas game last year. BYU turned around the season, pulling off an upset win at Boise State and a bowl victory with a depleted roster against SMU.

But Sitake calling the defense wasn’t the long-term solution. Sitake knew he needed a defensive staff with Power Five experience, but maybe more importantly, a group of coaches that would be relentless recruiters.

Sitake made tough decisions to move on from all but one of the coaches from last year’s staff.

He’s got a staff that checks those boxes. Jay Hill leaving the head coach post at Weber State to join BYU’s staff gives Sitake a defensive leader he can trust. This allows Sitake to be the program’s CEO and leader instead of being on the front line of the defense.

Along with Hill, Sitake has a defensive staff with Power Five experience, plus Jernaro Gilford, one of the top recruiters from the previous staff.

Hill has said his defense is complex. It’s a page from the Utah defenses that have carved out a ton of success in the Pac-12.

The offensive staff has earned a reputation for producing capable offenses that remind folks of the BYU of old. Their challenge now becomes taking it to a higher level in a conference known for its high-powered attacks.

The staff Sitake has gives BYU the best chance of leveling up.

#2 Deeper roster than last year

BYU will have a deeper and more talented roster in 2023 compared to last season. The problem is that they will have a schedule with ten Power Five opponents. So expectations have naturally lowered as BYU transitions into the Big 12.

BYU could have a situation where the team is better this year but still has fewer wins than last year due to the demanding schedule. ESPN’s FPI has BYU with the 28th toughest schedule in college football this season.

Some positions have questions compared to last season, most notably at quarterback.

Jaren Hall moving on to be selected in the NFL draft by the Minnesota Vikings is a significant loss for BYU. Pitt transfer Kedon Slovis is the starting quarterback, and he made a solid first impression during spring. But it’s a dropoff from Hall.

If Slovis plays at the level he did his freshman year in 2019 and the COVID season in 2020, BYU could have a third straight NFL draft pick as its starting quarterback. On the flip side, if Slovis puts up numbers as he did at Pitt with a 10-9 TD-to-INT mark, that streak likely ends.

The good news for BYU is that they have more options at quarterback. BYU didn’t have a backup signal-caller they trusted last season after Hall. Hence, why Hall played through a shoulder injury, he suffered against Utah State.

Behind Slovis is No. 1 JUCO QB transfer Jake Retzlaff. Retzlaff showed he’s a gamer with a knack for making plays off-script during spring practices.

After the quarterback spot, the offensive line and running back positions look on paper to be better than last season.

UNLV transfer Aidan Robbins was tabbed by Athlon Sports as a second-team All-Big 12 selection. Robbins paired with Colorado transfer Deion Smith, Hinckley Folau Ropati, and incoming freshman LJ Martin make for one of the deepest running back units BYU has ever assembled.

The offensive line is retooled, but stars return in left tackle Kingsley Suamataia, who will fill the shoes left behind by Blake Freeland. Suamataia is garnering first-round NFL draft buzz already. In addition, Connor Pay is back as one of the leaders in the program.

Pay could play at either center or guard this season. Then BYU added Paul Maile from Utah, Utah State’s Weylin Lapuaho, and Oklahoma State tackle Caleb Etienne, who brings 13 career Big 12 starts.

By my tracking, BYU has two scholarships available for the 2023 season. Adding a linebacker, defensive lineman, or another offensive lineman would be areas to focus on if it was up to me.

The defense has brought in quality newcomers, particularly in the grad transfer market. For example, Weber State cornerback Eddie Heckard was getting set to declare for the NFL draft but opted for one more year of college football. Heckard chose BYU over UCLA, Cincinnati, and others.

Utah State linebacker AJ Vongphachanh committed to BYU over offers from Washington State, South Carolina, and Minnesota.

BYU’s staff has brought in newcomers that should create competitive depth within the program. It’s a talented enough roster for BYU to get into a bowl game in their first season in the Big 12.

#3 Every game means something

The elephant in the room for BYU football each season as an Independent was the meaning of games. After one loss, or when BYU clinched its sixth win, the end game was known for BYU. A spot in a bowl game selected by ESPN against a Group of Five opponent.

That’s gone now. Joining the Big 12 Conference brings greater significance to every game played this season.

Gone are senior days against an FCS opponent, with nothing on the line. Now senior day includes a visit from Oklahoma in November.

Even if BYU is scratching and clawing for bowl eligibility down the stretch, they might have the chance to play spoiler in a conference title race. Maybe derail someone’s College Football Playoff hopes. Or simply getting the upper hand on league foes.

Every game will take on a greater meaning. That alone is something that every BYU football should be excited about this season.

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Mitch Harper is a BYU Insider for KSLsports.com and host of the Cougar Tracks Podcast (SUBSCRIBE) and Cougar Sports Saturday (Saturday from 12–3 p.m.) on KSL Newsradio. Follow Mitch’s coverage of BYU moving to the Big 12 Conference on Twitter: @Mitch_Harper.

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100 Days Until BYU Football: Three Reasons Beyond Big 12 To Get Excited