BYU Football enters uncharted waters as one of the last teams standing

The Mountain West, Pac-12 and Big 10 conferences canceled their football seasons this week, leaving BYU, New Mexico State and Air Force as the only Division I FBS programs west of Texas still planning on playing football this fall.

BYU finds itself in the unique situation of not being tied to a conference-wide decision on football, while also having sufficient resources to conduct its own COVID-19 testing and precautionary measures.

The unfortunate flip side of not being affiliated with a conference, however, is that BYU is losing its scheduled opponents as other conferences either cancel their seasons or limit travel and out-of-conference play.

As of Aug. 12, the Cougars have gone from a full 12-game schedule for 2020 to just three opponents. One of the three, Navy, was a last-minute arrangement after the cancellation of the University of Utah game. The only originally-scheduled games remaining are Houston on Oct. 16 and North Alabama on Nov. 21.

Despite the bare-bones schedule and potential opponents dropping like flies, BYU head coach Kalani Sitake remains optimistic about the season and his team’s ability to compete. Sitake and his players have praised the BYU administration and medical staff for educating them on COVID-19 and providing the resources to create a low-risk environment. Sophomore linebacker Payton Wilgar says BYU has been “excellent” in its handling of COVID-19 precautions and testing.

Quarterback Jaren Hall listens to coaches during fall camp on Aug. 4. Players have expressed their confidence and trust in BYU’s COVID-19 precautions, including wearing masks during practices. (Jaren Wilkey/BYU Photo)

BYU offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes said his mindset with the team is to “control what we can control, and give ourselves the best chance to stay healthy.”

In order to play football this fall, BYU has to keep its players healthy and find available opponents with similar health protocols and resources. Grimes and Sitake have expressed their confidence in their players and the low-risk environment they have created in order to practice and prepare for actual games. As senior tight end Matt Bushman shared last week, the team has “bought in” to doing their part to play football, including the inconvenience of wearing masks during practices.

BYU has committed to providing the resources the team needs in order to maintain their health and be able to play football. Earlier this week, the Cougars announced the addition of a splash shield to the helmets the team will wear during games this year to further protect from possible infections.

The other variable in playing football this fall is the ability to schedule opponents. BYU Athletic Director Tom Holmoe carries the majority of this responsibility, and players and coaches have also expressed their trust in him to find new games to play, especially after the exciting announcement of the season-opener against the Naval Academy on Labor Day. Senior Zayne Anderson says BYU is “full force” working toward the season and the administration is “fighting for games.”

However, no matter how hard Holmoe works at scheduling new opponents, there may be a point where there are simply no more opponents to schedule. Power 5 conferences such as the Big 12 and SEC have said teams can play one out-of-conference game, but those have already been scheduled, and BYU was not included.

For the time being, BYU fans can take solace in the fact that if there are any opponents left for BYU to play, the Cougars are in good shape to be able to rise to the challenge and compete. The team has yet to announce any player opt-outs, and with a bevy of veteran leadership, the Cougars have the chemistry and trust to not only succeed on the field but also in their efforts to avoid the virus.

BYU is a unique and peculiar school, and the independence era and COVID-19 pandemic have once again separated the Cougars from the crowd and offered opportunities to blaze their own trail. No one has ever seen what happens next.

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