So long Independence, hello Big 12 Conference.
A new era begins in Provo as BYU joins the Big 12 after more than a decade competing as an Independent.
BYU has arguably the toughest schedule among the new Big 12 additions (Cincinnati, Houston and UCF), and the Cougars are the only newcomer that will play both Texas and Oklahoma this year. Both the Longhorns and the Sooners are headed to the SEC next year, so while the schedule is certainly tough, Cougar fans will at least get to experience playing Texas and Oklahoma as conference foes before they depart for the SEC next year.
Looking at the Big 12 schedule, the Cougars get road trips to Texas, TCU, Kansas, Oklahoma State and West Virginia, while hosting Oklahoma, Cincinnati, Texas Tech and Iowa State. In fact, after having a bye week on Oct. 7 after facing Cincinnati at home, BYU will play seven conference games in a row. So much for the warm welcome from the schedule makers.
BYU Football 2023 Profile
|2022 Record: 8-5
|Head Coach: Kilani Sitake (56-34, 8th year at BYU)
|Offensive Coordinator: Aaron Roderick
|Defensive Coordinator: Jay Hill
|Returning Starters: 15 (8 offense, 7 defense)
|2023 Transfer Rank: 20th nationally
|2023 Recruiting Rank: 66th nationally
|2022 Total Offense Rank: 44th nationally
|2022 Total Defense Rank: 94th nationally
BYU Offense — 2023 Preview
Barring any injury, former Pitt and USC quarterback Kedon Slovis will start under center for BYU. Slovis, along with running back Aidan Robbins, were two of the more noteworthy transfer portal additions in program history. With Zach Wilson and Jaren Hall leaving early to go to the NFL, it was important for BYU head coach Kalani Sitake to find a veteran quarterback heading into the programs first year in the Big 12, and the Cougars certainly got it.
While notable departures with Jaren Hall, Puka Nacua and Blake Freeland off to the NFL this year, the offense still has plenty of firepower and should put up a lot of points again this year.
The biggest question heading into the season is how will the offensive line perform. With several unexpected departures such as the Barrington brothers transferring to Baylor and with Harris LaChance and Joe Tukuafu moving on, the Cougars went from having great depth and experience to having a huge void to fill. Time will tell if the transfer portal paid off as the Cougars were able to land Paul Maile (Utah), Caleb Etienne (Oklahoma State), as well as Ian Fitzgerald (Missouri State) and Weylin Lapuaho (Utah State). Both Maile and Etienne are likely starters, alongside Connor Pay and Kingsley Suamataia, but the fifth spot is still up for grabs.
The running back position should be solid as the Cougars return Hinckley Ropati and Miles Davis, along with newcomers Aidan Robbins, (UNLV/Louisville), Deion Smith (Colorado), Nukuluve Helu and LJ Martin (Fr.) Robbins rushed for more than 1,000 yards last season and the junior looks to take another step forward with even better numbers this season.
At wideout, the Cougars bring back Keanu Hill (572 yards, 7 TDs), Kody Epps (459 yards 6 TDs), and Chase Roberts (357 yards, 3TDs). Epps was headed for a record-breaking season as a freshman before the season was cut short due to injuries. All three are talented and have plenty of experience but the Cougars used the transfer portal to shore up depth as they brought on UConn transfer Keelan Marion and former Eastern Michigan receiver Darius Lassiter.
At quarterback, Slovis comes with four years of P5 starting experience under his belt. The senior also has seen his college career come full circle as he made his first road game appearance against BYU when the Cougars hosted No. 24 USC at LaVell Edwards Stadium back in 2019.
After making his debut against BYU as a freshman, the fifth-year senior is now starting for the Cougars. After a standout freshman season where Slovis threw for 3,502 yards and 30 touchdowns — not to mention setting the NCAA single-season record for completion percentage by a freshman in the process — the eye-popping stats have dropped over the years leaving some to question Slovis’ ability. I personally think he’ll be just fine. Between COVID, new coaches and programs as well as a Pitt offense that didn’t really throw the ball as much as he was told they were going to do, Slovis has not only embraced Provo, Utah, but has looked sharp in practice too, and getting a lot of love from coaches and players.
BYU Defense — 2023 Preview
Saying last year was a disappointment would be an understatement as the Cougars climbed as high as No. 12 in the AP after a terrific 4-1 star. However, after losing four consecutive games in October, the Cougars dreams of NY6 bowl game were gone as they ended up playing in the New Mexico Bowl in a win over SMU to finish the season at 8-5. While that maybe fine for some programs, that’s not what players, coaches and BYU fans expected for a team that had brought back 18 returning starters.
Anyone watching the games last year could see that the offense wasn’t the issue as the Cougars finished near the top in several offensive categories, including averaging nearly 32 points per game.
So what was the issue? The defense… or lack thereof.
If you looked up any defensive stats, you would find BYU near the bottom of the list, alongside juggernauts Bowling Green, Akron and Tulsa… you get the idea.
Sitake ended up firing nearly his entire defensive staff after the 2022 season in what was a collection of sub-par years leading up to the disastrous defensive performance last year. New defensive coordinator Jay Hill retained cornerbacks coach Jernaro Gilford, a great recruiter, and brought in former Cougars Kelly Poppinga (edge rushers) and Justin Ena (linebackers) along with Sione Po’uha (defensive tackles) to start the rebuilding project.
In addition to his hiring, Hill also brought FCS All-America cornerback Eddie Heckard with him from Weber State, and Poppinga brought several guys from Boise State as well (DT Jackson Cravens and DE Isaiah “Zay” Bagnah).
The good news for Hill is that the defense can’t possibly be worse than what is was last year. The bad news is that with an even more challenging schedule, the defense is going to need to be vastly improved if the Cougars want to go to a bowl game this year. One thing to note is the defense will provide a lot of different looks this year, so don’t freak out Cougar fans when you see the team dropping 8-9 guys back in coverage some times.
BYU Special Teams — 2023 Preview
When it comes to punting, the Cougars are in good hands as Ryan Rehkow returns for his fourth season. The preseason All-America candidate has one of the strongest legs in all of college football and is adept at pinning opponents inside their 20 yard line.
When it comes to placekicking, that’s a different story. With Jake Oldroyd — the school’s all-time leading kicker — hoping to make an NFL roster, the team has three kickers battling it out in fall camp. The situation didn’t seem all that bad until Justen Smith, who was Oldroyd’s backup the past few years, decided to hang it up this summer, leaving the Cougars with Will Ferrin (Boise State), Matthias Dunn and freshman Jordan Kapisi. The good news is that all three have done well in fall camp according to special teams coach Kelly Poppinga.
Looking at the schedule and assuming key players stay healthy throughout the season, I think it’s realistic to think the Cougars will make a bowl game and could get to 7-8 wins when factoring in a bowl win.
The biggest key is keeping Slovis healthy. The Cougars don’t have depth at the QB position so if Slovis goes down, so does BYU’s season. However, if Slovis can stay healthy, I think there is a lot of potential for the Cougars to finish significantly higher than what they were picked to finish (11th) in the Big 12 preseason poll.
While it may not be the 11-1 or 10-3 seasons that fans are used to, a 7-8 win season playing in a P5 conference should be celebrated, especially when the Cougars are still playing catch to other conference members when it comes to revenue sharing and conference distributions.